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These kids are forged in flames of adversity

As parents, we strive to provide and protect.

We want to give our children the basic necessities, insulate them from the ills of society and pray they don't have to deal with a debilitating disease.

We worry about any child who doesn't get those advantages.

But the four Tampa Bay teenagers I met at Disney's Dreamers Academy last weekend defy that logic. Not only have they survived such challenges, but in a twisted way, they have developed traits from their perils that are uncommon among a lot of adolescents.

Appreciation, resiliency, strength, composure, maturity.

Love.

Consider Chardeni Shelton, a 16-year-old from Brandon who speaks of her difficulties without breaking down.

"Ever since I was born, my mom was a drug addict," Chardeni said. "My mom died when I was 8 or 9. It was hard for me to find out that my mom died in a hospital on drugs. I was emotional.

"But my stepmom is my inspiration. All of her family, they just brought me and my sister in as their own. It was just a good feeling to know I was appreciated and accepted into this woman's life."

Andrew Bush, 14, also knows about losing his mother and bouncing back with the help of his aunt, Teara York. The Pinellas Park resident lost his mother to lupus clerodendrum when he was in sixth grade. He still remembers the date: Sept. 4, 2007.

"I was only in sixth grade, and I didn't really understand it, but I was heartbroken," Andrew said. "I said, 'She's never going to come back. She's never going to be in my life.' "

Tampa's Mark West, 15, considers the plight of Chardeni, Andrew and many of the other 110 kids at the four-day seminar and says his challenges pale in comparison to what they confronted at an early age. You want to stop and remind Mark that he battled kidney cancer as a young child.

But he knows.

De'Mia Middleton, 15, also knows about the ravages of cancer. Her brother lost his eyesight to retinoblastoma but gave her an appreciation for her own life.

"I'm understanding the meaning of how you should live your life and pursue your dreams," said De'Mia, a freshman honor student at Blake High School in Tampa.

It's a theme repeated often during the star-studded weekend at the Disney resort.

Comedian and syndicated radio host Steve Harvey partnered with Disney in 2007 to create the inspiring experience for at-risk youths. He revels at the opportunity to change the lives of these kids, and he speaks bluntly to them about the problems they have overcome and the challenges they will face in the future.

"Mr. Harvey doesn't sugarcoat anything," Andrew said. "He's so down to earth. They treated us almost like adults."

Harvey's brand and Disney's influence help attract stars such as American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, actors Tamera Mowry and Raven-Symone, and gospel singer Yolanda Adams.

"My message to the children is make sure you never give up," said Adams, describing herself as a dream nurturer. "There will be roadblocks, there will be detours, there will be people who say you can't. That's fine for them, but giving up is not an option.

"When you give up, you're telling God you didn't put enough in me to be as strong as you think I am."

• • •

Essence magazine came aboard this year as a named sponsor, and for the first time the kids were divided by gender.

Girls attended the Essence Of You session with editor Mikki Taylor and Harvey's daughters, Karli and Brandi. Boys heard from Harvey, motivational speaker Jonathan Sprinkles and Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., an urban school that has received national attention for its near 0 percent dropout rate.

The advice will help sustain the Disney Dreamers' ambitions, but so too will the fast friendships they created. The four Tampa Bay students beamed when asked whether they would stay in contact with each other.

"In a way, I felt alone," said Chardeni, who attends Pinellas Park High. "But these people have gone through some of the same things. Now I have people who can inspire me to move forward with my dreams."

So the students walk away with tools, knowledge and inspiration to fuel their dreams. It seems the curveballs tossed their way have somehow made them better prepared for life's toughest pitches.

I will share their stories with my own children, hopeful they can gain an understanding of the challenges without having to endure the pain.

That's all I'm saying.

These kids are forged in flames of adversity 03/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:49pm]

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