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Dying teen fulfills goal of earning diploma

As she stood on the Bell High School stage wearing a purple gown and mortarboard, applause from family and friends' standing ovation washing over her, a huge smile brightened the thin, tired face of Caitlin Huggins.

This was Huggins' graduation, a dream fulfilled by the 17-year-old through grit and determination. A battle with brain cancer is taking her life, but nothing will take away the diploma she clutched tightly.

"This ceremony is a celebration for your success as a student, but you are also a great teacher," said Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking Tuesday night at Huggins' special commencement in the Gilchrist County community. "We have your valuable lessons about faith _ above all else, faith _ perseverance and the power of the spirit to help us reach our goals."

Scores of people from this small North Florida community turned out to honor Huggins.

Huggins was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, the summer before her freshman year. There were periods of remission, but the day before this school year began, new tumors were discovered.

A doctor said nothing more could be done; she would die.

"She told the doctor, "Well, so are you. And it's all in God's hands. He's the only one who knows when we're going to die,' " said her guidance counselor and friend Dana Jones. "She's just an amazing child, facing that adversity. She's never met a challenge she couldn't overcome."

Chemotherapy has robbed Huggins of her hair, weight and vitality. While she was able to walk at the commencement, there was no speech because her cognitive abilities are fading.

"I just like the fact that I graduated," was all she could say to a reporter.

Her family has dealt with mounting bills and daily 40-mile drives to a hospital in Gainesville as well as the strain of watching the eldest of their three children die.

"If Caitlin would survive, or had survived, she probably would've been one of those people who would've made a mark on the world," said Huggins' mother, Suzanne Crace, her words slipping into past tense. "We're talking about a child who had a high IQ, who really enjoyed school."