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In the aftermath of an attack, Bloomingdale library rape victim finds her angels

BRANDON

Inside the bubble gum pink bedroom, the girl cannot see. She lies on her bed, listening to the Food Network. She hears soft footsteps and a purse landing on a table. She smiles. One of her therapists has arrived. She can identify those who enter her life by their movements. The way her sister flings keys onto the futon, the way her father's feet pound against the tile floors. Sometimes, she even seems to recognize the way the doorknob turns. Before they reach her room, her face lights up, her body straightens, and she lets out a loud, happy laugh. It has been a year since she was raped and beaten outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library. The attack left her unable to see, talk, swallow, stand or even hold up her head. She returned home in November after months of hospitalization. Since then, strangers have become friends.

The sounds of their help now fill the girl's life. Each week, eight specialists donate hours of therapy. The door opens and in comes a donated therapy table. It opens again to special shoes. Pearl necklaces. A homemade mobile. An everlasting bonsai tree.

Judy Gautier is one of the new friends. She works all day at a paying job as a speech and language pathologist.

Then she goes to the girl's side, and charges nothing.

"It feels like good is triumphing over evil," she says.

• • •

The Times has not identified the girl or her family because of the nature of the crime.

She turned 19 this past week. It was a year ago Friday that she decided to return library books to the after-hours book drop.

The suspect in her attack, Kendrick Morris, now 17, remains in jail as the case winds through the court system.

Today, the girl still depends on a feeding tube and a wheelchair. Her fingers still curl because she cannot yet control her muscles and has difficulty holding up her head for long stretches of time.

But she is able to swallow liquids during therapy. And recently, she sat through the entire movie, Confessions of a Shopaholic, laughing at the dialogue and feeling the thumping of the music in her chest. She can make out shadows and has blurted out "hi" a few times.

She communicates with her 22-year-old sister, one letter at a time.

It works like this. The older sister will ask a question.

"Who is your best friend?"

The girl is in bed; the sister at her bedside. The sister goes through the alphabet, one letter at a time until the girls stops her, by smiling and raising both hands slowly.

She chooses the letters: M-O-M.

Each day the volunteers arrive to help her get better.

Gautier, a speech therapist, likes to tie the girl's long dark hair up into a high ponytail.

Cathy Castellano, another speech therapist, always brings her puppy.

Denise Conway, an occupational therapy assistant, sings.

Darla DiFerdinando, another occupational therapy assistant, constantly pushes her to do more.

Chris Duncan, the physical therapist, likes to talk about the University of Florida. The girl had a scholarship to attend, and his own daughter will graduate soon.

Jennifer Leigh, a speech therapist, has the sweet voice of a child.

Judy Liebespach, the massage therapist, has a gentle touch.

Dr. Scott Stoltz, the chiropractor, believes in miracles.

The girl also gets 24-hour care from paid home health aides, but that need is reviewed frequently. Insurance covers some therapy, but not as much as the family thinks she needs.

So the volunteers gather every six weeks with family friend Cheryl Zemina to assess progress and set their own goals.

Some began helping as long as six months ago.

They may miss sessions for personal obligations, but they always return.

They are the orbits in her life, and they believe, like the family believes, that she can get better.

Gautier, one of the speech therapists, is a 44-year-old single mom who works 55 hours a week. She has little time to spare in her life. But when she read that the family needed help after insurance denied extensive therapy, she volunteered.

Gautier had followed the girl's story from the beginning and braced herself for her first meeting. She expected to be devastated and heartbroken — and she was.

"I can't even put into words without crying what it is like to see how a young, beautiful, vibrant, intelligent girl who had her whole life ahead of her had it all taken away in an instant," Gautier said.

But as the weeks went by and she got to know the girl, her mood changed.

"I genuinely believe she is in there," Gautier said. "She's very responsive, she has a good sense of humor. There's just so much promise."

Instead of having dinner with her children on Wednesday evenings, she is with the girl, massaging her facial muscles and working on her swallowing.

"It's easy for your focus to narrow in your life," Gautier said. "She's certainly broadened my focus. It certainly makes you appreciate life, appreciate your family."

• • •

The doorknob turns and the girl immediately perks up. No one knows for sure how she is able to sense his presence, but she reacts to him like no other.

Michael Browning, a volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technician at the Bloomingdale station who was among the first responders to the library that night, walks in.

The girl is alert, happy, smiling. He started out visiting her several times a week, telling her jokes, holding her hand, reading her books. Now he visits daily.

When she is upset, her family calls Browning, and she hears his voice over the speaker phone and she stops crying.

Last month, on the drive home from a speech therapy session in Sarasota, a tire blew on the family's handicap conversion van.

The van shook and grumbled, and the girl screamed as her father pulled over.

Tow truck companies and road assistance agencies said help was at least two hours away. The girl was hot, hungry and frightened.

But her mom had an idea: call Browning.

He happened to be on Interstate 75 headed their way, and he had a jack in the truck. Within 15 minutes, he was at the van's open doors.

"It's okay, sugar bear," he announced, "I'm here."

The girl cried as if she had just felt a big hug on a bad day.

"Your hero is here," the mother told her daughter.

"No," Browning corrected, "she's my hero."

A few weeks before Browning 30th birthday, the sister wanted to give him a gift from the girl.

The sister decided on a lighter. She sat at the girl's bedside and asked what message they should inscribe.

Then she proceeded to go through the alphabet. After almost an hour, the girl had spelled out the words: "From one hero to another."

It was Browning's devotion to the girl that made the sister first notice him.

"I knew at that moment, that this guy was pretty amazing," the sister said.

The friendship between Browning and the sister blossomed, and three months ago, the nervous pair asked the girl how she felt about them forming a relationship. A wide grin spread across the girl's face.

• • •

Before the attack, the family was not particularly religious. Now, they see God's blessings all around them.

They do not dwell on what they have lost — a bright, happy teenager who was weeks from graduation and headed to college — but they look at how much they have been given.

"I've learned so much about love, friendship and hope throughout this past year," the sister says. "I've met so many incredible people. It's hard to reach a breaking point when there are so many people holding us together."

More than $185,000 has been donated to the girl. The family put it in a trust fund restricted to her care.

Even the birthday candle on her cake seems to bring a blessing.

Wednesday night, the family took the girl to a restaurant, Tsunami, for a private celebration of her birthday. She sat in her wheelchair and listened to the chatter of sushi plates and the laughter of diners.

Then the family gathered around her to sing.

They held up the cake and her sister took a picture. In the photograph, a flame from a candle flickered near the girl's face.

The mother took a closer look. In the glow, she thought she saw the image of an angel.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

. FAST FACTS

To help

To make a donation, go to any SunTrust Bank and indicate that the money is for the Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim. Or mail a check, payable to Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim, to: SunTrust Bank, Special Handling Department, P.O. Box 27572, Richmond, VA 23261-7572.

On the Web

To watch an interview with the victim's sister and to read previous coverage, go to links.tampabay.com.

In the aftermath of an attack, Bloomingdale library rape victim finds her angels 04/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:58pm]

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