Queena still serving as a beacon of courageBY: Ernest Hooper, Times Columnist/East Hillsborough Bureau Chief
Thursday, April 9, 2015 11:44am
Queena Vuong, known for surviving a brutal attack at the Bloomingdale Library, was filled with nerves as she waited in line to meet one of her idols.Her sister, Anna, said Queena didn't know what to expect from the star. But really, she had no reason to worry. After all, it was just one princess meeting another.
"The first thing Cinderella said when we introduced them, she touched her wheelchair and said, 'I love your carriage,' " Anna said. "Queena just lit up like: This is awesome. She was just so excited."
Nearly seven years after Queena was assaulted and left to die on April 24, 2008, — two days after her 18th birthday — she continues to serve as a beacon of courage for the community and a symbol of hope as she moves toward recovery.
Her family will celebrate her birthday with a pair of fundraisers on Saturday and on April 18.
She smiles big and her laughs fill the room. She can now kick a soccer ball on command with either foot.
Queena watches movies, listens to audio books one or two hours a night and loves One Direction and Bruno Mars. When she heard Luke Bryan, another favorite, singing during a recent visit to SeaWorld, she stuck her arms straight out and her feet snapped out of the straps on her wheelchair.
Country girl shake it for me.
She's still not talking — yet — but her therapists and doctors are impressed with her recent progress.
"I would say the first five years were very slow but steady," Anna said last week. "But within the last year, year and a half, her progress has taken off."
Talking and eating "are major milestones, and I think we'll get there eventually, but the small steps are really huge, too."
Just as the therapists marvel over her progress, we should marvel over the family's bravery.
The trip to Disney in February, a gift from the Valrico-based nonprofit Operation Lotus, represented a rare family vacation. And an extra special one for Anna.
Operation Lotus founder Melanie Brockmeier lived across the street from the Bloomingdale Library when Queena was attacked. The nonprofit, which often aims to help people who experienced loss, jumped at the chance to help Queena with a special trip.
They talked about a therapeutic swim with dolphins, but everybody involved decided it best to give Queena something fun: three days, two nights at Disney with Brockmeier handling all the arrangements, including reservations, accessible room, hospital bed and a Disney VIP photo pass.
Brockmeier and Lotus board member Melanie Morrison, executive director of the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, presented the gift to the family just before Christmas.
"Meeting them changed my life," Brockmeier said. "The smile and excitement on Queena's face as I told her what she was getting was pure joy.
"Meeting her mother and sister was profound. They were the true definitions of hero, selfless heroes devoted to Queena. It was simply amazing."
At Disney, Queena spent the day at the Magic Kingdom meeting her favorite characters, including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
But Anna also got a special moment. With fireworks reflecting off the Seven Seas Lagoon and the family looking on from the Polynesian, Anna's boyfriend, Jonathan Donato, proposed.
She said yes, affirming that her own emotional health can't be neglected. But Anna says her mother finds it more difficult to focus on herself.
"She always says you're not in my shoes so you don't completely understand," Anna explained. "She hasn't been on a vacation by herself. She hasn't gone on a date. She doesn't have time and she doesn't quite have the motivation yet. She's just so hopeful and she's devoted everything she can to Queena."
The trip presented just one more magnanimous gesture from the community that embraced Queena even before her name was known.
"When the story first came out everyone was saying it's just like it happened to my own family, like Queena is my own daughter, my own sister," Anna explained. "That's how it's been for the last seven years. She's implanted herself in their hearts."
But as much as she has received, she has given back. People who follow her Facebook page and website write to the family that her example has inspired them to bravely face their own demons, be it sexual assault, cancer or some other challenge.
"She's a little ambassador," Anna says. "Sometimes we wonder why did this happen. It doesn't make any sense.
"But we try to forget about the why and look at the good we are doing and the progress we've made. It's been a tough, emotional journey but it's been amazing at the same time."
Some days are tougher than others. They endured the trial of her assailant, Kendrick Morris, and saw him sent to prison. Since then, meeting the financial demands of Queena's health care has been omnipresent.
Still, they remain hopeful.
"I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of years, something big happens," Anna said. "All it takes is one small connection in the brain."
Thankfully, Queena has already made one big connection with the community.
That's all I'm saying.
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