After a tragic past, a bright future

This Land O'Lakes grad lost her mom at age 13 but has worked hard for a happy life.

Published May 26, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - May 13, 2002, was the first day of the rest of Brittany Strong's life. It started with an alarm clock that was beeping, beeping, beeping and Brittany, who was 13, went into her mother's room and found her dead in her bed. She saw her mother's boyfriend on the floor in the living room, and she started screaming and yelling and asking what he had done, and he got up and went outside and borrowed a gun from the neighbor and went into the woods and shot himself there.

That was five years ago in Hudson.

Here's Brittany now: She's 18, she's bright, she's articulate, and she's graduating from Land O'Lakes High School today at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She's engaged to be married. She's going to Pasco-Hernando Community College on scholarships and then wants to go to USF to study business so she can do whatever she wants.

She had every excuse to quit and she didn't, said Lana Marsicano, her aunt, her mother's younger sister.

"I wanted to make my family proud, " Brittany said one recent morning at the local McDonald's, "and most of all my mother."

What happened to Barbara Jo Strong, who was 40, was awful, and ugly, and the details don't need to be repeated.

When it first happened, Brittany cried, but she didn't want to see anybody else crying, and she still doesn't.

She moved in with her aunt and her uncle here in central Pasco County. They took her to counseling. She didn't want it.

But she did, in the first few months, sleep in their room, or in the room of her big brother, who had been there, too, and had called 911.

She talks about her mother. She seldom talks about what happened. Her best friend, Jessica Giorgi, 17, says they talk about her mother like she's still alive.

There's no manual for this. For Brittany Strong, she got busy, and stayed busy.

She's worked at the McDonald's and the Wal-Mart at State Road 54 and U.S. 41, and the Shane's Rib Shack at 54 and Collier.

And her grades?

They went up.

"When a tragedy happens, I guess that's when your true character comes out, " said Robin Gibson, one of the senior project coordinators at Land O'Lakes. "You either pick yourself up or you fall apart.

"And I don't know that there's a wall bigger than what Brittany's already conquered, " she said.

"A lot of self-determination, " said David Martin, her guidance counselor.

"She's a survivor, is what she is, " said Joan Kerwin, the school's scholarship coordinator.

"The human spirit is an amazing thing, " she said, "and you can see it in her."

She is engaged to Gary Downs, who also is graduating, and they've lived together, on their own, since December. They have a 2001 Kia Sephia that cost them $3, 300 and a traded-in '94 Ford Escort. They share an apartment that has a couch and a recliner and a Bose stereo system and two 27-inch color TVs and two much-loved dogs, Patience and Buddy.

Brittany has scholarships - $1, 000 from the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union scholarship and the Bright Futures Scholarship that amounts to about $2, 500 a year for four years. And she's applying for others, said Kerwin, the scholarship coordinator, that could pay in full for any and all schooling for the next six years.

She would be the first in her family to graduate from college.

Today, there to watch her take the next step forward will be her aunt and her uncle, her grandparents, her great-grandmother, her brother, and many, many friends.

In Brittany, said Marsicano, they will see a lot of Barbara Jo.

Outgoing and independent and charismatic.

Hard-headed and hard-working.

And happy.

Brittany Strong's senior picture is on Page 228 of the Land O' Lakes yearbook.

She's smiling in the picture and there's a quote under that smile.

"If you can't see the bright side of life, " it says, "polish the dull side."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com.