Throughout May, commencement speakers everywhere beseech young graduates to embrace opportunity as they step into a bright future. Each graduate has a story about his or her journey to this day. Some have traversed dark and challenging terrain …

For those, the light is especially brilliant.


Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

An oft-debilitating illness hasn’t stilled Symmer Cano’s ambition.

Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Every year, Symmer Cano’s church, Christian Family Center, engages in a Daniel Fast.

The diet of fruits, veggies, nuts and water is inspired by the Bible story in which the prophet Daniel ate only vegetables and drank water.

Symmer and her family always participate, but usually, with exceptions, bread and cheese being the two main exceptions. Symmer was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8, and her health had been suffering, especially in the past year.

“She would get an infection, and we would have to go to the emergency room,” says Symmer’s dad, Mondy Cano. “The doctors would tell us, like, they might have to amputate her foot eventually.”

Symmer’s mom, Deborah Cano, had read a book about the advantages of a vegan diet for diabetics, and she wanted to try it.

So that’s why this year, the Canos went all in on the Daniel Fast.

The first week, Symmer called her mom to report that her sugar had dropped. “I told her to eat something,” Deborah recalls. Then the next week, her blood sugar levels dropped dangerously low. So her doctor lowered her daily insulin prescription.

Two months later, Symmer was off insulin entirely thanks to her vegan diet.

Since then, they have started reintroducing some foods and then testing her sugar levels to see how the foods affect her. Bread and tortillas are off the plate for good. But she sometimes eats dairy products now.

Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Symmer Cano Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“She will go out to eat, and her friends are like, ‘Symmer, I can’t believe you’re not eating any of this stuff,’” Deborah says.

But the 18-year-old says it’s an easy choice. She would rather eat vegan than shoot up insulin every day.

“It’s not a diet,” she says. “It’s a new way of living for me.”

Symmer also was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby, and she attends Dallas Academy, near White Rock Lake, a school for students with learning differences.

It’s a small private school that also offers “the high school experience,” Deborah says. Symmer got to be a cheerleader and go to homecoming and the prom, things that aren’t always offered in specialized schools.

Symmer’s church and school encourage volunteerism, so she gives her time to the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes, the North Texas Food Bank and Kiest Park Daycare. Two years ago, she went on a mission trip with her church to Costa Rica to donate shoes and food to an orphanage. And she helps raise money to dig water wells for impoverished communities in South America.

She also has attended Camp Sweeny, a three-week camp in North Texas exclusively for kids with diabetes, every year since she was 11.

Last June, Symmer turned 18, and in July, she got a tattoo on her wrist. It is trendy among Symmer’s peers in the type 1 diabetes subculture to be tattooed on their wrists instead of wearing medical-alert bracelets, Deborah says. In Symmer’s unique version, the word “diabetes” is part of a swirling infinity symbol.

“How can you argue with medical reasons for a tattoo?” the mom says.

Symmer plans to attend Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., and she is considering a yearlong AmeriCorps program in Kentucky prior to that.


Jackie Brown Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Jackie Brown Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For some, a rough upbringing gives way to self-pity and underachievement. Booker T’s Jackie Brown is an exception.

Less than a year ago, Jackie Brown was waiting tables at an Oklahoma City IHOP, often until midnight or 1 a.m.

The 18-year-old, who now lives in Kessler Park, supported herself with that job while living with a friend’s family. Her mom died of breast cancer on Dec. 31, 2011, and her stepdad, a recovering addict, had become increasingly unstable after his wife died.

When school started in August, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jackie started waking up for 6 a.m. cheerleader practice after nights of slinging hotcakes, and she was weary.

“I was like, ‘Is cheerleading really this important to me?’ ” she recalls. Nothing was going right for her in Oklahoma, she says. So she packed all her belongings and her little dog, Sissy, into her 2003 Saturn and drove to the home of her aunt, Martha Kelly, in Oak Cliff.

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts accepted her as a senior, a very rare move for the school. They liked Jackie’s photography and art portfolio, they felt for her personal story, and she had good grades, says school counselor Laurie Freelove.

Texas’ high school curriculum is a little more rigorous than Oklahoma’s, Jackie says. Her first semester, she had to take 11 classes to make up all the requirements to graduate by June. This semester, she’s taking only two extra classes (for a total of nine), world geography and world history.

But there’s no waiting tables until midnight now. Jackie’s school counselor told her there was no way she could have a job and still complete her schoolwork, and her aunt Martha agreed. For this year of her life at least, Jackie has to worry only about herself.

That hasn’t always been the case. When she was 8 years old, both of her parents went to prison on drug charges. She went to live with a paternal uncle and his wife and daughter in their hometown, Poteau, Okla. She says she felt a little like Cinderella in their home, and one of her aunts still calls her “Cindy,” she says.

“I felt like an orphan,” she says. “My mom used to brush my teeth for me, and then I had to learn to do everything for myself, everything.”

When her mom was released from prison in 2008, she remarried to someone she met in recovery and moved to Sayer, Okla.

“I hated my stepdad at first,” Jackie says. “But now I realize how much he loved my mom and me. He took such good care of us.”

She is rueful because she recently learned that her stepdad has returned to prison. She wishes she could’ve done something to help him, she says.

Reminded that she was just a kid who lost her mother, she shrugs and looks off.

Then she remembers how great her life is now, and she brightens.

Southern Methodist University’s studio art program offered her guaranteed admission for the fall 2014 semester, as long as she completes 24 hours of coursework at a community college before then. She will get to hone her craft as an art photographer and “dabble” in anything else that interests her, she says.

Her aunt Martha and uncle, Jim King, sent her to Italy over spring break with a class trip. And this summer, she will tour Europe for a month with other Booker T. grads.

“My aunt wanted me to go because it’s something she never got to experience, so she wanted me to have that,” Jackie says.

And she has a boyfriend, a rock ’n’ roll drummer, who drove up to Oklahoma to spend Easter with Jackie and her family.

“It just feels like everything is falling into place,” she says. “I get to be around all of this art and music that I love. When I was working at IHOP, I never thought I would be doing all this.”