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Deer Park cancer survivor, 18, determined to teach in Japan

May 23, 2019

Some might think Jessie Raney wasn’t born lucky. She was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2, and a procedure left her paralyzed from the waist down.

“The doctors said I would never walk again,” she said.

But Raney has never depended on luck. Now 18 and due to graduate May 24 from Deer Park High School, she’s looking forward to attending the University of Texas at San Antonio with firm plans to move to and teach in Japan upon graduation.

“Last summer, I spent a month studying abroad in Tokyo and I loved it there. It didn’t feel foreign at all — it felt like home, like I’d seen it all before,” said Raney, who is now cancer-free.

She said the pull to Tokyo stems not only from her love of the place but from a need to live an independent life, something that health problems had threatened. She spent the early part of her life in a wheelchair and believes her cancer treatment and extended time away from school impacted her ability to learn properly.

“I’ve had a lot of surgeries and missed a lot of classes which affected my learning slightly, but I also believe chemotherapy and radiation had side effects which (hindered) my learning,” Raney said. “I’ve wasn’t able to catch on to things as easily as other people did, I stuttered and it was frustrating because I always had to do my homework in the hospital and I would fall behind in my classes.”

Nevertheless, Raney soldiered on despite missing half of kindergarten following a bone-marrow transplant surgery. When she began school under the special education umbrella, she used her wheelchair but had already advanced to a walker by second grade. Thanks to ongoing physical therapy, she regained ability to walk by middle school with few issues.

“Now I can fully walk, but I don’t have the full movement of my ankles; so I trip a lot,” Raney said.

Her mother, ReBecca Gardea, was determined her child would not use her illness as a crutch.

“I pushed her to only use (special education) accommodations as she needed them but no more,” Gardea said. “As for her abilities in school, I don’t tell her what they are or aren’t. She knows what she needs to do to be successful.”

That approach seems to be just what Raney needed. Not only was she able to get out of the wheelchair, but she overcame scholastic challenges to excel in pre-AP and AP classes in high school.

“To be in an AP class and to get college credit is always an achievement for kids,” Gardea said. “(When she starts at the university) Jessie will have 15 college credit hours under her belt, which is a huge success story for a cancer survivor.”

Mindy May, Raney’s 10th-grade pre-AP English instructor, said she was aware of Jessie’s struggles almost immediately.

“When I first met her, her handwriting was a big issue; so I knew she had some (small) motor problems, but she also had trouble putting her ideas together in writing. I was a little worried about her,” May said.

“I worked with her and gave her a framework and some writing templates, and from there she just took off.

“Her writing just exploded and I ended up seeing tremendous growth,” May said.

Raney continued to write outside of class.

“She was trying to get better on her own, that’s what impressed me the most, that she took what she learned and applied it,” May said. “That’s unique.”

Now on her way to study English and Japanese in San Antonio, Raney is focused on the next four years to earn her degree before headed to the Far East.

Her mother, though proud, is still a little unsure of her daughter’s plans.

“Her goals impress me, but I don’t want her to go,” Gardea admitted. “But, she’s alive; so she needs to go and live her life. So, I support it.”

May said her former student’s plans may well had been shaped by her unique experience growing up.

“She’s learned to see life from a different perspective, and she wants to learn about and be around people who are different from her,” she said. “She’s not satisfied to stay around here and be like everyone else.”

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