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Chamberlain's Terrell Johnson plans for college, despite disease

Terrell Jefferson, 19, diagnosed with Von Hippel-Lindau disease, was accepted by Florida A&M University.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2012)

Terrell Jefferson, 19, diagnosed with Von Hippel-Lindau disease, was accepted by Florida A&M University.

TAMPA PALMS — Good news for a Chamberlain High School senior came last week as a three-pack combo.

Terrell Jefferson, 19, couldn't stop smiling.

He got a letter of acceptance to Florida A&M University.

He won scholarships that will fully pay for his costs.

And he learned he has no tumors.

Jefferson was featured in the Tampa Bay Times Holiday Hopes series six months ago. He wanted help to pay for a test to determine if he had inherited a rare disease called Von Hippel-Lindau, which eight months earlier had killed his father.

Readers generously chipped in to pay for the $675 lab test and other fees.

In January, Jefferson got his results: positive.

At first, he was distraught. He had watched his father and a brother struggle with the disease, which causes benign and malignant tumors.

"I knew sometime in my future it's going to hit me," said Jefferson.

Time has allowed him to accept the diagnoses and more tests returned news of no tumors.

He's glad he knows.

"I want people to know I'm all right," he said recently. "I'm going to college to pursue my dreams. I want to say thank you to everybody who donated."

Jefferson plans to be a pediatric nurse or maybe a doctor.

He no longer worries that he will pass out while playing basketball or wake up one day in pain like his brother, who had eight tumors on his brain and continues to battle the disease.

Jefferson is working his way through several programs at the Tampa Palms office of Starting Right, Now, to help him, including ones from Dale Carnegie and Ruby Payne. Founder Vicki Sokolik says her goal is to eliminate the cycle of homelessness among high school students accepted by referral through the school district. She has 110.

Jefferson sat in Sokolik's office after school recently with a fresh hair cut for his job at McDonalds.

Working is one of the requirements for the program that provides apartments, mentors and cellphones. Sokolik gave Jefferson a letter awarding him a third scholarship and he asked her about college orientation.

He will start classes in June.

"Vicki, I'm thinking about getting a credit card," he said.

They had talked about it before and she reminded him credit can lead to trouble.

Jefferson said he was aware of the dangers, but wants to build his credit.

"Well, if you get it, you have to pay off the balance each month in full," Sokolik said.

Jefferson says it feels like everything leading to this point in his life was predestined.

He grew up quick after his father's death, he said, facing choices that could have turned his life sour.

He'd had no luck finding a job.

"I could have easily sold drugs for food, he said, a sure path to jail.

Instead, he has made good with help.

"Take this great kid and back him up against the wall — he has to do what he can to survive," Sokolik said.

But he met a counselor from the Florida Department of Children and Families, who put him on his current path.

Sokolik says she looks for kids with a certain spark.

Their stories are different, yet the same.

"He's going to change the world," Sokolik said. "He will."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Chamberlain's Terrell Johnson plans for college, despite disease 04/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 1:47pm]
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