For him, college just another challenge
By TERRI D. REEVES
PALM HARBOR -- Justin Smith had to overcome major handicaps and defy dire predictions about his future to become a successful student at Palm Harbor University High School.
Now he has taken that success on to college as a freshman at Auburn University in Alabama.
Justin, 18, was born with Moebius syndrome, an extremely rare medical condition that paralyzes the face. He cannot raise his eyebrows, close his mouth, smile or cry.
Speaking and eating are difficult; his hearing is severely affected.
His eyes have been surgically sewn into a forward-looking position because he was not born with the cranial nerves necessary to control their movement.
Now Justin has left the security of the nest and is a freshman at Auburn University, an eight-hour drive from his Palm Harbor home.
He seems to be enjoying all that goes along with college life: football games, parties and a part-time job. He even has the stereotypical rowdy roommate.
"You never know when the police are going to knock on the door," said Justin's father, Ernie Smith.
For Justin, the road to autonomy has been a long one.
When he was born, Justin was unable to suckle and his parents had to feed him with a syringe.
Educators predicted he would have reading problems and be a slow learner, not advancing much beyond the fifth grade.
Throughout his public school career, children often teased and called him names.
Equally agonizing were the 15 surgeries that Justin has had to improve his hearing, articulation, and appearance. He has had part of his tongue removed, his jaw broken and realigned, parts of his ribs implanted under his eye sockets, and a muscular sling created around his jaw.
Despite all this, he became president of the Palm Harbor University High School marine biology club, a member of the school's National Honor Society, a weight lifter, and a two-time recipient of the Disney Dreamers and Doers Award.
When his parents said goodbye to him in August, it was a long, emotional ride home, they said.
"We both totally lost it," said Pat Smith, his mother. "We worried about people taking advantage of him and whether he would make friends and be happy."
Ernie Smith said the separation was extremely difficult in Justin's case because "we were with him every step of the way. He is my best friend."
The Smiths said they began preparing Justin for college in high school by teaching him how to cook, do laundry and balance a checkbook. More important, they say, they taught him life would be tough and he'd have to work much harder than others to achieve his dreams.
Justin said he is a serious student and anticipates making a 3.0 his first semester. An avid outdoorsman, he often hunts or videotapes the local flora and fauna on the weekends. His plans are to major in wildlife administration and not return to the congested roads of Pinellas County when he graduates.
"I like it up there," he said. "The pace is slower, and the people seem friendlier. I enjoy being out in the country where it is really beautiful."
Ernie Smith said he was thrilled that Justin was enjoying college so much, even if his newfound independence did sting a bit.
"He doesn't want to come home," he said. "We thought the kid liked us."
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