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Choosing happiness - and success

Left quadriplegic by an accident at age 7, Rebecca Dewar now plans on a career in social work.

In high school, everyone could see Rebecca Dewar's challenges. A drunken-driving accident at age 7 left her quadriplegic, able to move only her mouth, chin and eyelids.

Her wheelchair marked her as different, but she said it also let her travel through various high school cliques.

"I didn't really fall into that peer pressure, and it didn't bother me. I could be friends with anybody," Dewar said. As a peer counselor at Interboro High School, she would talk to students about their problems, including having suicidal thoughts and pressure to have sex. "A few of the worst kids in my school - or so they were called - would really open up to me."

Now 26, Dewar wants to spend her working life helping people with their problems.

Tomorrow, she begins classes for her master's degree in social work at Widener University. Her career plans include earning a doctorate and teaching at the university level, counseling trauma victims in a hospital, and opening a practice that focuses on families with disabled children.

"I feel like if I had somebody - when I was younger - that counseled me, I might not have been so confused or angry about things," Dewar said. "And I kind of want to help people . . . let them know that they don't have to be so angry. [People] can choose to be happy."

Dewar not only chose to be happy, she chose to succeed.

At Widener's commencement ceremony two weeks ago, she was awarded a bachelor's degree in social work and several honors, including the President's Award, which is given to the senior who has contributed the most to campus life.

She graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average, led the school's social work club, and had her artwork featured in a student exhibit.

"Becky was just a shining star," said Brent Satterly, a social work professor who copresented a paper with Dewar at a conference this spring in Destin, Fla. The paper focused on adapting experiential learning for persons with physical disabilities.

Dewar uses a ventilator to breathe, pushes a control knob with her chin to move her chair, and has specialized mouthpieces to write notes, type papers and paint. One of her charcoal drawings recently was purchased for the university's permanent collection.

An internship at St. Edmond's Home for Children in Rosemont reaffirmed her social work plans.

"She's amazing," said Tom Wissert, the center's social services director. "Because of her condition, I think she has a high sensitivity and understanding to children and all that they go through."

Since the accident 19 years ago, Dewar has relied on care from nurses, her mother, Cindy, and father, Jim, who left his job as a machinist to become her primary caregiver. It was an easy choice, Jim said, since the responsibility and guilt for the accident fell on him.

With Cindy in the front passenger seat and his daughter in the backseat, the father drove headlong into another vehicle. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.14; the legal limit at the time was 0.10.

At first, Jim believed his daughter was dead, and he described her recovery as a religious experience.

"When I stepped out of the car, our Lord met me right there on the road. And I surrendered my will to him at that moment," said Jim, who broke his ribs and suffered internal injuries but recovered fairly quickly. Cindy suffered broken bones and spent about three months in the hospital. Rebecca spent almost a year in hospital care before coming back to her Prospect Park home.

Jim was sentenced to five years of parole and seven years of probation. Rebecca said she forgave her father, and the two now have a healthy father-daughter relationship.

The middle-school years were the most difficult for Dewar. After recovery - and several years of home schooling - she had difficulty connecting with other students.

Things improved at Interboro High, where she became more involved in extracurricular activities and made many friends. "I became popular," she said. "And I was like, 'Oh, OK.' "

Her father described her college graduation as a blur. "The achievements that Becky has made over the years were just incredible," said Jim, a 1971 Interboro High graduate. "We can't even find words for it anymore."

During a short speech at Widener's commencement ceremony, Dewar talked about how nervous she had been on the first day of college. She quoted a verse from the Book of Isaiah and wished her fellow graduates luck.

"My theme was perseverance," Dewar said, "and how we all have some type of challenges, and some are obvious to see and others aren't."