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Destiny Snell's expression is one of abiding glee as she recalls the day a few weeks back when she first heard the chirping sound at the crosswalk near her high school, Analy, in Sebastopol.

It came months ahead of what she'd been told would be the case. It signaled freedom.

A year into learning how to navigate life with most of her vision gone, the sophomore is driven to master all the tools and skills at her disposal to minimize limitations on her life.

The busy crossing at North Main Street on her route between school and home was a clear impediment to independence. Now, she can cross it off the list.

In the months since she learned about the sight-stealing tumors in her brain, the 16-year-old has undergone two surgeries and suffered weeks of daily radiation to preserve what little vision she had left. Through it all, Snell has confronted her situation with a fortitude and practicality that's awed those around her.

That she's brave in the face of growing blind is impressive. That it's just the latest hardship to come her way earns her instant respect.

"Destiny is one of the most courageous people I have ever come across," said Leslie Edmonds, part of a team from the Sonoma County Office of Education that is teaching Snell adaptive skills, from Braille to using talking computers, to overcome her impairment. "The inner strength is just off the charts."

Snell gives credit for her endurance and upbeat perspective to simple optimism, as if it's a small habit from childhood she realized one day was of use.

The challenges of her life might have taught her otherwise. Bitterness would have been an understandable choice.

Having endured a childhood without her parents, neglect as a preteen and the more recent shock and discomfort of losing her eyesight, Snell said she copes because it's her custom "to look at the bright side."

Diagnosed with the benign tumors that pressed on her optic nerves right around the time she was to start driving lessons, Snell will miss out on that landmark high school achievement. The trade-off, she says, is deciding she has license to appoint personal chauffeurs on a whim.

"I tend to find the positive in things," she said during an interview at home near downtown.

Since her open-heart surgery seven weeks after birth, "taking care of myself a lot" as a child, and the gradual transfer of parenting from her biological mother to guardians whose attention faded with time, Snell has been forced to develop the kind of resilience that's impressed those aiding her through the latest round of adjustments.

Next up is still-unscheduled surgery to correct a 2-inch discrepancy in the length of her legs -#8212; surgery she hopes will ease chronic pain in her hips and ankle, and is thus welcomed despite the recovery.

It helps to have the obvious love and support of her newfound family: a father who conquered addictions before fighting in court to get her back, a take-charge stepmother she calls Mom, and protective siblings from a blended family. She's got a team of adoring educators, as well, who specialize in different areas of instruction for the visually impaired, including technology, social skills, Braille, mobility and orientation.

But Snell admits it's been difficult to settle into a new school just as she's relearning how to live, knowing the kids who surround her haven't figured out what to make of the girl who uses a white cane and has an ever-present school aide.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

People jump out of her way when she comes down the hall and often are uncomfortable approaching her. It can be awkward when those who greet her don't say who they are, so she doesn't know who's talking.

Day after day in the same classes, it's like being surrounded by strangers, she said.

Even friends from her old school in Rohnert Park, who knew her "when I was perfectly fine" -#8212; greet news of her medical issues like, "She's broken! What do we do?"

"Nothing's wrong with me," Snell says. "I just can't see."

Snell began wearing glasses in the second grade. Though they were replaced twice, they no longer worked by seventh grade and began causing such intense headaches that she cast them off as hurting more than they helped.

When her father, Brad Snell, re-entered her life, she had not seen a an eye doctor in four years and hadn't had glasses for two.

Just a few weeks after moving in with him and his wife, Carol Snell, in November 2012, her need for care grew critical. Destiny Snell would reach for an object and miss by several inches. She no longer could see the board at school. Every day it got worse.

Last January, she and her family learned about fluid in her brain. A week later she underwent surgery. But her eyesight continued to decline week by week, and a second surgery in April revealed benign tumors that were squeezing her optic nerves and putting her hearing at risk.

It was devastating news -#8212; "probably the most heart-wrenching news you can get as a parent," Carol Snell said.

Daily trips to San Francisco for radiation treatments followed. For 30 sessions, Destiny Snell would lie in a face mask snapped to the table to hold her head still. Much of her thick, fair hair fell out; brushing it made her nauseous. She was weak, and "literally," Brad Snell said, "it was like one day at a time."

"I was an emotional wreck," his daughter said. "It took me a while to get to this standpoint, and really -#8212; up until the point of my radiation therapy -#8212; I was really all over the place."

The treatments stabilized the tumors, at least for now, permitting Snell to retain the last of her vision -#8212; enough to see shapes and contrasts in color and tone.

As she recovered and prepared for a new school, a different life, the team from SCOE came into play, providing the support and concrete instruction she needs to go forward.

Snell is learning to rely more on memory, using a variety of technologies to convert text to speech and vice versa, and finds her hearing has intensified as a result of needing it more.

When Snell was struggling last fall to find a safe way to cross the road on the one day a week neither parent could get her from school, her mobility teacher, Coni Arendt, helped her contact the city engineer about an audible signal light, and was in turn connected with Caltrans, which controls the intersection.

Snell was told it would be months -#8212; April at the soonest -#8212; before the agency's budget and work schedule would permit it. But soon after winter break she was at the crosswalk when the chirping sound alerted her she was free to cross.

She was so excited, she sped home and began calling friends and family with the news.

"Now that I can walk home safely, I can be independent, and it's really cool," Snell says. "I don't like to have to depend on other people."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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