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Declarations of "independence'

A 5-year-old dares deep waters for the first time. A teenager gets a license to drive without mom or dad by her side. A woman becomes her own boss.

What does "independence" mean?

Today is Independence Day. As the history books tell it, July 4, 1776, was the day the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the day a handful of colonies took an ax to the apron strings, the day an upstart youngster demanded the keys to the car from Mother England.

It's been a long time since the redcoats were driven from our shores. But in ways large and small, the land still teems with people (and other creatures) being sprung from shackles real and symbolic.

Today in America, beneath the din of fireworks, you can hear freedom ringing at beautiful and surprising frequencies. Have a listen.

_ CHRIS GOFFARD

For years, her mother has ferried her back and forth to track, cheerleading practice, school. Parties. Her friends' houses. The movies.

On June 12, Melanie Reese, 16, gained her independence: She got her driver's license. She could drive the 1999 silver Toyota Corolla her father got her without anyone else in the car.

She could get a job at Panera Bread.

She could drive to school.

She could join the track club and five other after-school clubs.

She could go to the beach all by herself.

If she wanted to, that is. She's got a lot of friends who have their driver's license but no car. So she takes them around, and they help her with gas money.

"My Dad and I had this thing that as long as I kept up my grades, he'd get me a car," said Reese, a slender girl with dark hair and dark eyes. "I always kept straight As and was in honor classes."

The day she got her license, she dropped her mother off and picked up her boyfriend and they went to dinner.

Of course, there are still limits. The law requires her to be home by 11 p.m. her first year of driving.

"It's changed everything because now I can get places without having to rely on my Mom, and it has taught me to be on time," said Reese, who attends St. Petersburg High School. "It's taught me a lot of responsibility. I can get places now, and I go to more activities. I have a job. It's made me more independent."

_ LEONORA LaPETER

A concrete hierarchy exists at the Davis Islands public pool in Tampa.

The lowest rung is the so-called Baby Pool, a place for the kids who don't yet tread water. Then there's the Medium-Sized Pool, for those who can execute the elementary backstroke but who might falter on, say, the freestyle form.

At the top is the Deep Pool _ 5 feet and deeper. Only the strongest, bravest swimmers qualify.

This week, for the first time in his life, Rious Fortier made the cut.

The 5-year-old spent most of his swimming lesson showing instructor Sam Martino that he could float (with a little help), glide (with a little help) and make it to the far end of the medium-sized pool (with a little help).

But on this particular day, Martino decided Rious was ready for the big plunge.

"He's a good swimmer for his age," Martino said.

With aplomb, the boy jumped into the Deep Pool, its waters stretching out like an ocean from the vantage point of a boy 4 feet tall.

He took a big breath and swam a few strokes entirely underwater, Martino close by. Quickly, the boy climbed out, back onto the wet concrete.

"It was kinda good," he said, "and kinda scary."

_ KATHRYN WEXLER

"It's going to get really loud in here," says Cheryl Dickey, an animal care assistant at the Hillsborough County Animal Shelter.

A cage opens. On cue, a cacophony of barks and howls instantly reaches manic pitch. Dogs jump up and down for a peek over concrete walls separating the kennels.

Over here! Over here!

"They're jealous," Dickey says. "It's almost like they're protesting: "Why can't it be me?' "

The nameless lab-shepherd mix, all of 5{ months old, must be coaxed from her cage to meet her prospective owners. She is led to a courtyard, where she runs on coltish legs.

Then she seals the deal by nuzzling her muzzle onto Darin Bush's chest and giving him The Gaze.

Last time they adopted a dog, Bush and Daniel Law looked for six months before picking a lab and pit bull mix they named Eli. This time, it took all of a day.

"It's like when you meet a person," Bush says. "It's a look in the eye thing. You know."

Bush and Law are pound people when it comes to picking dogs. There's a reason.

"They seem to know what situation they're in," Bush says. "And they seem to appreciate it."

First, some paperwork. The nameless dog waits back in her cage _ for the verdict.

Then she's sprung.

Alex Lopez, one of the customer service reps at the shelter, smiles.

"You're going home, puppy," he says.

_ BILL VARIAN

For more than 17 years, Angie Knowles took orders from her superiors in the Air Force. Sometimes, if she didn't agree with them, she questioned them. But in the end, she always followed orders, because that's how things work in the military.

Knowles liked her job as a radio maintenance technician. But all those years, she dreamed of going into business for herself and doing something involving a hobby she'd had since she was 9: sewing.

"The whole time I was in the military, I knew I wanted to have my own business," she said.

Today, Knowles is living her dream and savoring her newfound independence as an entrepreneur. Eight years after taking early retirement from the Air Force, she owns her own business, Angie's Slipcover Designs on 49th Street S in St. Petersburg.

People stop by the shop with photos of their couches or just call with descriptions. Knowles goes out to their homes, cuts the fabric to fit and pins it on so her customers know what the finished product will look like, then takes it all back to the shop. Four to six weeks later, a slipcover is born.

Knowles opened for business in 2000 after studying apparel design and construction in Seattle and taking a short course on slipcovering in North Carolina. She's hoping to break even this year.

"I feel like I have more control over my destiny because I can choose which direction I go in," Knowles said.

It's a lesson she's hoping to impart to her 17-year-old daughter.

"Go for it," Knowles tells her. "You've got nothing to lose."

_ ADRIENNE LU

John Wayne Sanpardo knows freedom. He just finished four months of house arrest.

The 45-year-old Gibsonton man was serving time for obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence and violating probation on a worthless check conviction. (He insists a relative wrote the bad checks).

But on Tuesday, jail officials told him he could remove the ankle device that tracked his every move. He could venture more than 500 feet from his home. He could, finally, go outside after 6 p.m.

"It felt like 200 pounds being lifted off your back," Sanpardo said. "It was a natural high."

On Tuesday, just because he no longer had to stay in Hillsborough County, he drove to Pasco. That evening, he took a long walk through his neighborhood.

"It felt good to feel the night air on your skin for a change," he said. Wednesday, he headed to Pinellas County, just because he could.

Sanpardo plans to spend his holiday weekend at the beach off Gandy Boulevard. He'll pack a cooler of Mountain Dew and Pepsi, crank up his Coleman grill and cook hot dogs and hamburgers.

"I'm going to jump in that water I haven't seen in a while, get some saltwater under my skin," he said. "It's like being reborn."

_ BRADY DENNIS

Salih Adam Ahmed Fator, from Sudan, has known the brutality of a regime that demanded he fight against men he didn't hate. He has known the outrage of a government that burned down his farmhouse.

And he has known the unhealable sadness of discovering his father dead after another raid in a country riven by civil war for 20 years.

But as Fator, his wife, Fatima Abdelrahman A. Ali, and their five young children settle into life in suburban America, they are coming to know something new.

Independence to Fator has nothing to do with apple pie and fireworks. It has everything to do with not being harassed, not being frightened, not being watched.

"We don't have any freedom for the citizens of my country," said Fator, 41, speaking through an interpreter from the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, which is assisting the family.

In a home provided by St. Mark's Episcopal Church, his sponsors, in a neighborhood off Gunn Highway in northwest Hillsborough, Fator can ride his bike wherever he pleases. No one bothers him. That he finds remarkable.

"As a Sudanese citizen, I couldn't feel safe in my house. Over here _ I've only been here a month _ I feel more safe," he said.

For the first time, his children are receiving formal instruction. They already know the alphabet and the words for lamp, floor and light switch.

Factor joins them for their daily lesson, trying to learn words that trip on his tongue.

He is happy he is here.

"I felt free from the day I arrived at the airport," Fator said, gazing out the window.

_ KATHRYN WEXLER

Since he was 8 years old, Paul Lods has dreamed of visiting Hawaii. It's part of the reason he makes two trips a week to a Hess station on 34th Street in St. Petersburg, buying Lotto tickets for a group of 10 co-workers.

If Lods ever wins big, he said, he will take his girlfriend to Hawaii and enjoy some newfound independence.

"First off, I'd quit my job," said Lods, 61, who lives in Brooksville but drives a truck for a linen company in St. Petersburg. "I won't have to wait to retire."

In Hawaii, he said, he would "just sit back, relax, and have a good time. And watch other people work."

_ CURTIS KRUEGER

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