Clovis West grad Brittany Tolbert faces life's challenges with grace

The Fresno BeeJune 6, 2013 

It was the typical hustle and bustle to get the family out the door in the Tolbert household Thursday night. Brittany Tolbert, 19, was on her way to graduate from Clovis West with balloons, flowers and more than a dozen relatives in tow.

Sporting a white cap and gown, Brittany watched patiently from her pink wheelchair as her brother Anthony rushed to find the camera.

The family couldn't afford to be late: Brittany, who has cerebral palsy, was picked by her classmates to give Clovis West High School's commencement speech because of the inspirational story she has to tell.

"I'm a little bit nervous, but I'm excited to let everybody hear my speech," she said.

Her disability affects her muscle movements and speech. Her hand scrunches into a fist when she talks, but she's verbally dexterous — so much so that her peers chose her to represent them during graduation.

Brittany's disability isn't the only challenge she's faced during her short 19 years.

Her father, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert, was 38 when a hijacked jet exploded into the side of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing him and 124 other Pentagon workers, and all 59 people on board the plane.

Her mother, Shari, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. And Brittany continues to face her own health problems: She broke her leg last year and was in the hospital last weekend, a visit she feared would keep her from graduating with her class.

"But the doctors told me I could get released, and now I'm just glad I'm graduating," she said.

At commencement, with glittery nails to match her shiny silver flats, Brittany was beaming.

It was a breezy night, but the wind calmed as she took the stage.

"If I can make it through all these obstacles and commit to excellence," she said as she ended her speech, "I know our graduating class can, too."

The crowd members stayed silently seated on the bleachers for a moment, then rose on their feet in roaring applause.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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