TAMPA, Fla. -- The beat of a drum makes her smile. She laughs at thunderstorms and her eyes light up when she hears she's getting her hair done. But friends say three years ago, none of that would have been possible for the woman who survived being raped and beaten in front of the Bloomingdale Library in Tampa.
"She's very smart. She hears and understands everything," says family friend Caryn McDermott. "She is working so hard to get her life back."
One night in 2008, when the woman was 18 years old, she visited the Bloomingdale Library to drop off books. That's where another teenager raped her and nearly beat her to death. Kendrick Morris has since been convicted of beating her and another woman in an unrelated incident, and is serving a 65-year jail sentence.
"Sometimes, it just hurts to see her the way she is," says Priscilla Viera, the woman's best friend from high school. "I feel bad, but sometimes I don't want to visit her. But then I have to stop being selfish and think about her. It makes her happy when people visit her, so I'm doing it for her."
Before that night, she was set to attend the University of Florida with a full scholarship. Now, she can't walk or speak, but friends see her improving every day.
"She's responding to people better. If you talk to her, she understands. She laughs," Viera says.
Right now, the staff at Pediatric Therapy Services in Lakeland is using a TheraSuit to help her. It basically functions as muscles and helps her move. On Monday, the staff started to help her stand up using poles. It's a struggle, but her silent determination keeps her going.
"We all have to keep supporting her because it's going to be a long journey," Viera says.
Some of the friends who surround her have been with her since high school. Others have joined her in the last three years because her journey inspires them.
"I love visiting her. I love making her laugh," says McDermott.
During therapy, she wears colorful leg braces that she picked out herself.
"Keep your head up," a physical therapist says to her.
And she is keeping her head up with their help, treating every day as an opportunity to improve.
"There have been so many little steps in the right direction," McDermott says. "She has a long way to go, but she's made some quantum leaps."
The TheraSuit and other kinds of suit therapy are sometimes referred to as experimental treatments. The Medicaid waiver that the woman is using will not pay for the therapy, so her family is paying for it out-of-pocket through donations from the community.
The next fundraiser they'll be holding for her recovery is in April. Until then, anyone can visit a SunTrust Bank branch and make contributions payable to the Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim Trust.