Disability And Poverty Only Steeled The Resolve Of The Cuban-born Woman, Who Has Opened A Law Office.
November 13, 2001
By Susan Jacobson, Sentinel Staff Writer.
KISSIMMEE -- Some people battle poverty. Others cope with disabilities. Still others suffer abuse.
Mercedes Leon has triumphed over all three.
Leon, 38, a former assistant Orange-Osceola public defender, recently opened a law office just steps from the new Osceola County Courthouse.
Her journey from child born without feet to Cuban immigrant to hotel maid to practicing attorney is a testament to her drive, friends say.
"Some people do 100 percent," Osceola County Judge Ronald Legendre said. "Some people do 150 percent. She just gives 250 percent to anything she decides to do."
Leon was born with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors, skin discoloration and, sometimes, bone deformities and learning disabilities.
In Leon's case, her feet were little more than gnarled, misshapen knobs. Sixteen painful surgeries later -- including the addition of artificial tendons and pins -- she can walk, albeit with a slight limp. "I was so blessed," Leon said. "I dance. I do everything."
Growing up in Cuba, Leon endured teasing from classmates who made fun of the casts she wore after her operations. They pushed her down a hill in her wheelchair and shoved her into rosebushes. Instead of growing dejected, she let the experiences build her resolve.
"It's part of who I am," she said. "It has really made me a stronger person."
Leon credits her mother, Aida Bennett, with instilling in her the importance of education.
Bennett made sure her daughter never missed school in spite of hospital stays and doctor visits. Bennett carried her daughter in her arms to a city bus stop at 5 a.m. so they could get to the hospital for treatment, then delivered Leon to school by the 8:30 a.m. starting time.
"My mother was the biggest inspiration," Leon said. "I walk because of her dedication and commitment."
Leon's parents separated, and she, her brother and mother moved to the United States in 1980. They went first to Costa Rica with 34 other illegal refugees and eventually chartered a small boat from Bimini to Florida.
On the way, they were caught in a fearsome nighttime storm and were forced to toss their belongings overboard. As they did, she heard someone yell, "Dios mio," -- "My God."
"That was my first encounter with God," she said. "In Cuba, I never heard of God because it was Communist. [Now] every single day I thank God for my life 10 times."
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