This story is part of Newsday’s 2019 Extraordinary Seniors series showcasing 16 high school students from across Long Island with the vision and determination to transform their corners of the universe — and perhaps beyond. Click here to read more.
Jazmine Duran started commuting from her home in the Bronx to the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson as a sixth-grader. The bus ride, at least 45 minutes each way, would have been a hassle for any kid, but Duran’s cerebral palsy and reliance on a wheelchair made it a daily challenge.
According to her school social worker Amanda Caccavo, overwhelming anxiety and battered self-esteem quickly led her to fear leaving the house and her attendance suffered.
But through strength, a supportive school system and a bit of wizardry, Duran turned a challenge into a character-defining blessing. In 2013, after her fourth surgery, she began walking. In September, she will become the first person in her family to go to college.
“If I wasn’t disabled, I wouldn’t be half the person I am now or know all the things I know,” said Duran, 17, a senior at the state-funded school for children with severe disabilities who often need supportive medical care during the day. “I’m thankful because I get to experience life in a way that most people can’t, and that’s special in and of itself.”
Known for her ever-changing hairstyles and fondly referred to by friends as “the mother of the group” because of her concern for others, Duran has become a leader at school. She is a Student Council delegate and since seventh grade has been a Natural Helper — those chosen anonymously by peers as a trustworthy person to turn when they have a problem. This past year, she helped form the Gender Sexuality Alliance, which provides education and support for disabled students who identify as LGBT.
Perhaps her most impactful form of outreach, though, has been as a Viscardi Ambassador. Since freshman year, Duran has traveled to public schools across Long Island to raise awareness about her disability and let others know “they can relate to us,” she said.
During visits, Duran discusses one of her favorite things: "Harry Potter," the book series by J.K. Rowling she fell in love with while recuperating from her 2013 operation.
“I couldn’t put them down,” Duran said. “I used it as an escape mechanism, I think. It had to do with magic and witches, and people flew around and, at the time, I couldn’t walk.”
When she gives a presentation, those in attendance gravitate to Duran afterward. "'I don’t know how you do this!’” she said is among the reactions students share after meeting her.
Having spent her early academic years struggling in a public school in the Bronx, Duran is committed to advocating for those with disabilities.
“Most people don’t see the capabilities, just that you’re limited in a way,” she said. “I was constantly fighting to be heard and seen. I found it very frustrating because I had to prove myself 10 times more than an able-bodied person did. But at Viscardi, I’m seen for who I am.”
And that is a young woman determined to graduate from college, embark on a career and eventually move her family out of the Bronx and provide for them.
“Jazmine wants to be able to show her nieces and nephews that it can be done — that with education, you can greatly improve your life,” Caccavo said. “She’s really special and willing to work so hard.”
HIGHER ED: Duran will attend SUNY New Paltz and major in clinical psychology.
FRESHMAN YEAR: Duran is looking forward to pushing her limitations and “growing as a person.”
IF I RULED THE WORLD “I would bring more acceptance into the world … I would make people nicer to each other.”