By Roger Phillips
STOCKTON - Tolulope Afolabi walks with a slight limp and often suffers from aches and pains in her joints. She has undergone replacement operations for both her hips and had heart surgery two years ago.
But physical challenges are not what define the 17-year-old Afolabi. Rather, it's her ever-present smile and unfailingly positive demeanor.
"Sometimes I can get down because of my situation," Afolabi said. "When I was younger, I would ask my mom why all this stuff was happening to me. She would cheer me up. As I got older, I became more thankful. I'm still here, and I can do a lot."
Afolabi's latest achievement came Thursday evening when she received her diploma from Weston Ranch High School, from which she graduated with a 3.4 grade-point average. She is planning to attend California State University, East Bay, in the fall. Her goal is to become a pediatrician.
Simply making it through high school might have seemed challenge enough for her, considering that Tolulope (pronounced TUH-LOO-LOW-PAY) has been beset for 10 years by the painful symptoms of sickle cell anemia - a blood disorder that predominantly affects people of African ancestry. Her heart and hip problems were directly related to the disorder.
But the daughter of Nigerian immigrants refused to allow her illness to slow her down. She spent her high school years involved in so many clubs that she says she lost count. At various times she was in the drama club, the food club, the Class of 2009 club, the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council and the Black Student Union.
As a senior, she served as parliamentarian for the state Black Student Union because of her knowledge of Robert's Rules of Order.
And for the past two years, Afolabi led Weston Ranch students' efforts to collect donated clothes, shoes, books and medical supplies for the citizens of war-torn Liberia on the west coast of Africa.
Some of her work on Liberia was done 14 months ago from a bed at the Children's Hospital & Research Center in Oakland. She spent nearly a month there after receiving hip replacements needed as the result of complications from sickle cell anemia.
"She was always on the computer at the hospital," said Weston Ranch campus monitor Ann Flores, who visited Afolabi frequently during her stay, bringing her candy and other treats. "She was getting homework e-mailed to her, and community service and everything she was supposed to be doing. She was in the hospital doing work she shouldn't have been doing at a time when she should have been taking care of herself."
Afolabi said, "Since I'm used to pain, I push it aside so I can get my work done. Not paying attention, joining clubs, takes my mind off it. ... Just being able to help other people is satisfying enough. At least I made a small change somewhere, somehow."
The final days of high school can be a sentimental time, and such was the case this week for one of Afolabi's teachers, Jacky McFadden, the staff adviser to Weston Ranch's Black Student Union.
McFadden, who is retiring, found herself getting emotional as she thought about her years with Afolabi.
"She was that quiet little shy thing," McFadden said, remembering the freshman of four years ago. "She's very outgoing now. She has that leadership ability. She's extremely active. She bosses me around. I plan to keep up with her. She's my investment."
Thursday, Afolabi donned cap and gown and completed her high-school journey. She hasn't let her condition stop her - and she doesn't plan to in the future.
"I always knew I would make it," Afolabi said. "I always did my work. I always made sure I understood everything. I'm happy, excited and sad at the same time. I'm improving every day. I've always made it out of tough health situations. I've always survived."