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Woodburn girl once derailed by meningitis, chronic pain, will graduate from Oregon Connections Academy this year

COURTESY OF OREGON CONNECTIONS ACADEMY - Lorena Soriano overcame health issues to graduate from Oregon Connections Academy. She will attend Western Oregon University, study biology and has a long-term goal of becoming a pediatric physical therapist.Early June inevitably radiates a palpable buzz among high-school seniors, a buoyancy delivered by graduation season. It's a time when graduates can reflect on a dozen-plus growing years while eagerly anticipating an unblemished, open horizon.

No Woodburn-area senior deserves that upswing more than Lorena Soriano, whose growing-pain reflections encompass much more than teenage angst surrounding school grades, popularity, social media and school-hall chatter.

Lorena's young story is one of life and death – fighting for her life, and eventually helping her mother do the same.

Lorena is one of 450 Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA) seniors scheduled to make the diploma walk at the Oregon State Fairgrounds Saturday, June 8.

She finished with a 3.8 grade-point average, was elected to the student government and served as one of ORCA's 12th-grade senators, was named secretary of ORCA's chapter of the National Honor Society and participated in the school's Breakfast Club, which is comprised of students statewide who "meet" online in the morning and discuss various issues, thoughts or musings.

In September Lorena will be enrolled at Western Oregon University where she plans to major in biology.

Her situation sounds like hundreds of others, budding with optimism after years of k-12 toil. But unlike others, Lorena found herself fighting for her life at age 12, battling to regain some semblance of health after being debilitated by meningitis.

"Meningitis…that affected every body function; I couldn't walk; I couldn't swallow; I couldn't remember anything – I just lost a lot of simple body functions," Lorena recalled. "They told my parents that I was going to die."

At that pre-teen age, the daughter of Sandy and Francisco Soriano, was cast out of her normal childhood and left trying to recover. That recovery process involved hospitals, physical therapy sessions, relearning simple activities falling -- and falling behind in school.

No longer able to physically attend school, she enrolled in ORCA, the state's online public charter school, and navigated her education, and life, from there.

"I needed to be pulled out of school due to my disability," Lorena recalled. "I suffered with chronic pain and nerve damage, and traditional public school started straining my body.

"I also felt I was getting left behind in my education, because meningitis effected my short-term memory. I developed a lot of memory problems and I had trouble understanding things, and regular public school became harder."

With all of her medically-related appointments, attending school became impossible. But Lorena managed to keep her education in focus and on track. She believes the flexibility afforded by online education coupled with the ORCA's accommodating educators were crucial.

"When I was sick I was always at hospitals and seeing doctors," Lorena said. "But I was able to take my computer to the hospital and study there. I could have an appointment at 10 (a.m.), then go right to my lessons.

She emphasized that her online teachers were not only available for help, but supportive. The latter became especially important this past year.

Sandy Soriano has been confronted with her own battle, facing a life-threatening form of liver cancer this year, for which she had surgery last week. Lorena's mom, who helped her through so many crucial childhood battles, now needed Lorena to help care for her.

"Yeah, it's been so hard," Lorena said of her mom's trials. "I've had her support through my sickness. We've really gone through a traumatic experience through it.COURTESY OF OREGON CONNECTIONS ACADEMY - Lorena Soriano, left, and her mother, Sandy Soriano, have each battled health issues in recent years. Lorena will celebrate her Oregon Connections Academy graduation ceremony June 8 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

"I wanted to be there for my mom. It's so hard, very emotional….They told me she might not make it (through surgery). I didn't want to continue going to school… But my teachers said, just take your time. They told me they would help me through everything."

They did, and Lorena is ready to graduate with her fellow Class of 2019 students.

Reflection on her hardships has actually given Lorena some direction on her new horizon; her long-term goal is to become a pediatric physical therapist.

Lorena pronounced deep gratitude for the physical therapists who guided her.

"I don't think I will ever be 100 percent again," she said. "But physical therapy was the only (healing process) where I could see my recovery and know I was getting better. I felt hope.

"That was a dark time for me and my whole life had changed. But seeing life getting better made me feel better," she continued. "I started getting confidence. Seeing children who are in a situation like mine was, I want to help them get that same confidence I did when I was getting better. I want them to see their progress."

That delights her mom.

"She has had to relearn simple tasks," Sandy Soriano said. "Physical therapy helped her see her progress. She had to relearn how to walk again, and a whole array of basic human functions. Physical therapy helped her see her healing, helped her get stronger in her recovery, and she wishes to give support to children who are in similar situations as the one she went through."

The first step into that new horizon will take place Saturday at the state fairgrounds, a day that will be deeply emotional for the Soriano family.

"I'm just thankful that I've gotten this far," Lorena said. "My (family) are going to be very emotional, because they have seen me so sick. Now this year my GPA is insane, I'm graduating…they are just very happy for me."

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