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She's flying high after some early rough spots

Published May 25, 2007



Elena Mulligan loves to fly.

Put her at the top of a cheer squad pyramid. Strap her into a puddle-jumper plane. She's in her element when she's in the air.

This summer, Elena will fly to Washington, D.C. At 11, the rising seventh-grader at Benito Middle School will represent her school at a Junior National Young Leaders Conference.

Hers would be just another end-of-the-school-year story pitched by another proud parent, but for a major difference:

Elena was not born in New Tampa. In early childhood, she was not nurtured to be the leader of anything. Until about three years ago, she lived in an orphanage, deep in the woods outside Moscow.

Elena landed in the orphanage after a series of misfortunes that her new family finds too painful to discuss. Her journey is the stuff of novels, tragic tomes that are the pride of her birthplace.

But Elena's teachers say she learned nothing of Russian culture in the eight years she lived there. Schooling for girls like her, like food and love, was painfully lacking.

Tanya and Michael Mulligan adopted Elena and two other Russian children while living in San Diego, Calif. Elena needed extensive dental work and only recently was fitted for eyeglasses.

Tutors and family friends who spoke Russian were their early translators. Intensive English instruction happened at school.

"I used to listen to people's voices and repeat what everybody said, " said Elena, who now has barely an accent.

Disney movies helped, too.

"I remember watching the movie Nemo, over and over again with the words printed on the screen, " she wrote in a school autobiography. "I must have watched that movie about 100 times."

Seeking to leave California, the family settled on Tampa and chose New Tampa for the reputation of its schools. It helped when they learned that at Benito, Russian-born Larissa Feldman taught English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Elena earns mostly A's and B's at school, plays the violin and has a loyal circle of friends. She cheers for the New Tampa Wildcats, loves the Bring It On movies, sleeps with the four family cats and fights with her younger brother, Slater, "over little things."

She likes to help out at school, and that's one reason Feldman nominated her for the Washington conference - that, and her academic progress.

Elena says she's ready for the trip, just needs a new memory card for her camera. At times, she wants to be a storekeeper when she grows up; other times a lawyer or a teacher.

"I'll hire her, " crowed principal Bobby Smith.

All rather typical for a girl her age until you consider where she came from.

"She had to wrap her mind around going to school and having a future, " Tanya Mulligan said.

Now the sky is the limit.

[Last modified May 24, 2007, 08:08:33]

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