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Crime & Courts

Rape survivor celebrates birthday – and much more

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Published:   |   Updated: April 20, 2013 at 07:03 PM
PLANT CITY -

The women sit in a circle, smiling, laughing, joking about old times.

It's like any group of old friends, taking time out from busy lives a few years after high school to catch up with each other.

Except one of the women is in a wheelchair, the result of brain injuries she endured after being raped outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library five years ago.

The reason for Saturday's reunion is the woman is celebrating her 23rd birthday. And much more.

After nearly being beaten to death, Queena is celebrating survival.

She and her family used the occasion, a party at the Keel & Curry Winery two days before of her actual birthday, to raise money for her recovery, and to raise awareness that those who are raped need not live in shame.

“This is a way for Queena to tell people that they are more than victims,” says her older sister, Anna Vuong. “They are survivors and they should not feel ashamed. The community support has been uplifting and helped us overcome adversity.”

Rachel Hall, seated next to Queena on the winery's covered patio, recalls her last conversation with her East Bay High School classmate before the rape.

They were talking by cell phone at about 10:30 p.m. on April 28, 2008.

“She was going to the library to drop off some books,” says Hall, 22, a kindergarten teacher at Corr Elementary School in Gibsonton. “She told me she saw a weird-looking guy there. I told her to stay on the phone. That's something we always did. That's when everything else happened.”

Hall wipes away a tear.

“I heard a scream and the phone went dead.”

Kendrick Morris was convicted of raping and beating Queena. He is serving 65 years in prison for the attack.

With a big birthday cake
waiting, this is no day to dwell on Morris.

Queena is dressed in a pink T-shirt bearing the words “Join Queena,” the name of the website – joinqueena.com -- chronicling her life and recovery. Around her shirt is a purple “Happy Birthday” sash.

“She looks great,” says Hall. “She has her glasses on. She is able to see.”

And, though she still cannot speak as a result of the injuries inflicted during the beating, she is able to understand.

“When I talk to her, I fill her in,” says Hall. “Tell her jokes. Gossip.”

Hall smiles.

Adrienne Harrow sits to Queen's left and recalls a trip they took to Italy during high school.

“We ate gelato every night,” says Harrow, 24, who is seeking her master's degree in building construction. “We used to terrorize Europe.”

Ashley Norton, 23, had planned on going to college with Queena at the University of Florida, but Queena's plans forever were altered by the attack.

“I went to UF,” says Norton. “I like bringing the Gator spirit to her.”

By 2 p.m., several dozen people have arrived to show their support for Queena. Many stop and give her a hug and offer best wishes.

Hall asks her how she feels about the outpouring of love and support.

Queena beams.

“Look, she has a big happy smile,” says Hall. “She is enjoying herself.”


haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

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