Keesha Denton came into the world 17 years ago as a tiny baby, born to a 13-year-old mother in St. Petersburg.
She weighed just a little over 3 pounds. At times she would even stop breathing.
On Friday, the tall, athletic Brandon High senior delivered a speech in honor of National Adoption Day and recounted her inspiring story at the county courthouse.
She described the early health problems that made it difficult for her teenage mother to manage. Because she lacked proper family support and education, her biological mother gave her a malnourished life that often sent her to the hospital.
As she grew Keesha also fell behind socially. Early on she was diagnosed as a selective mute and struggled with a range of learning disabilities.
She had a club foot that would require her to wear a brace for a few years. Throughout her early years she was shuffled between the unstable life of her teenage mother and the caring home of her foster parents Jerry and Cathy Denton of Brandon.
Finally, at the age of 7, her life took a different turn when she was adopted by the Dentons.
"They took me in as a premature baby and over the years helped shape me into the person I am today," Keesha said. "Even though I don't say it enough, I truly do thank them for what they helped me accomplish.
"Adoption was the turnaround point in my life because honestly, if you ask me today how I would've turned out, all I can say is I don't know. I can tell you though, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you today, I wouldn't be making the grades I am today, and I probably wouldn't have a very bright future by this point. Adoption gave me and I'm sure numerous other kids a second chance at life."
Cathy Denton marveled at the accomplishment of her daughters' speech before the media, Eckerd Community Alternatives and prospective adoptive families.
"For her to get up and give a speech now. I can't get over it."
She remembered the years of shaping Keesha's confidence to speak to others. Years when she would always whisper what she wanted to say in her mother's ear so she could speak for her.
Although she says she struggled through elementary and middle school, being pulled out of class for individual help, she slowly overcame most of her learning disabilities.
When she got to Brandon High School, she really began to spread her wings socially by joining various extracurricular activities.
In the ninth grade, she joined the Eagles marching band, playing trumpet for two years and percussion for the last two years. She is also a member of Tri-M, a music honor society.
"She knew we needed percussion so she switched," said Melanie Driscoll, Brandon's band director. "At first I wasn't sure about it but then it worked out really well. Everyone loves Keesha. She's part of our band family.
"I'm lucky to have her. She's one of those seniors that have stuck it out for all four years.
Being in the band proved a lot of fun but then she decided to also try on another uniform besides the band when she joined Junior ROTC Eagle Battalion. She rose through the ranks and became a staff member and also the Junior ROTC color guard co-commander.
Lt. Col. Guy Walsh, Junior ROTC senior Army instructor at Brandon, has watched her receive many medals of recognition as a cadet in the program.
"She has been a steady performer for us, has friends from every level and background and always makes good decisions," Walsh said. "And she's humble. You wouldn't know the obstacles she's overcome if you didn't ask."
As if she had not defied enough obstacles, Keesha also has logged long miles on the cross-country team. Having overcome her early orthopedic challenges long ago, she decided to train for the varsity team at the prodding of her coach and Junior ROTC instructor Robert Maestas.
Although she had problems attending practices due to her marching band and Junior ROTC leadership roles she soldiered on with the rigorous schedule trying to better her running times.
"On some days Keesha would ask me what we were doing for practice then go to band practice and then do the workout she missed with us afterwards," said Maestas. "Keesha made the varsity team and helped us win the district championship where she ran her personal best time."
With the rest of her academic schedule Keesha admits that she still struggles keeping up with challenging honors courses, but she is also a member of the National Honor Society and will be part of the Honor Court of her 2013 graduating class.
She aspires to attend college at the University of Central Florida and earn a spot in the school's Air Force ROTC program. She wants to major in forensic science because she says she loves being able to solve crimes and give justice to victims.
She speaks of inspiring other young people to challenge themselves no matter what disabilities they have, and some day adopting a child and changing a life.
"I don't know how many, but someday I know I will."
Belinda Kramer can be reached at [email protected]