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A difficult path to walk across stage

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Danielle Symes' slow walk across the graduation stage took only a few dozen steps. Her journey getting there was much longer and considerably harder.

A fist-sized brain tumor nearly killed her. And then there were the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the migraines and, of all things, a bad case of shingles. Through it all, Danielle toughed it out and became her family's first high school graduate when she got her diploma Friday night at Gulf High School.

Danielle was one of 285 seniors to graduate from Gulf, 98 of whom left with academic honors.

Gulf's seniors collected a total of $130,000 in local scholarship money, and thousands more from their future colleges and universities. One senior, Kyle Myers, won a $50,000 scholarship from the University of South Florida.

Among the grads were three National Merit commended scholars, ranking them among the nation's top students: Myers, valedictorian Megan Rashid and Kevin Seeber. Seventeen senior athletes were named to district all-academic all-star teams. The class also volunteered a combined 1,900 hours tutoring children at local elementary schools.

Principal Cheryl Renneckar urged the departing students to be heroes in their neighborhoods. Too often, she said, people look for heroes in faraway places. And although Renneckar didn't mention Danielle by name, she took a moment to recognize the "heroes" of the class of 2002 who graduated despite formidable odds. Danielle certainly qualifies, as she graduated with honors.

"I asked God for a long time why he did this to me," said Danielle, 18, "but it was God who gave me the strength" to persevere.

Gulf High's teachers were important, too.

"They've been with us all the way," said Danielle's mom, Carol Symes.

But Danielle's course through school was anything but certain, her mom said.

Even so, "she always had a smile, she always had a great attitude," Carol Symes said. "She kept me strong when I was down, and church kept us strong together."

Though most people would probably view a cancerous brain tumor as a major tragedy, the Symeses say it's been a blessing. The illness reunited Carol and Danielle's father, who divorced 13 years ago. They'll remarry this summer. Danielle's older sister, who has battled substance abuse, is back with the family now, too.

"God healed me and brought my family back together," Danielle said.

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