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By Stephen Ruiz

Karee O'Neal One year after Beacon College was founded in 1989, it held its first graduation ceremony.

Nine students, including Karee O’Neal, accepted their degrees that day.

They were pioneers in a sense, charting a course that others followed.

“When I started at Beacon, I was a very shy, quiet person and didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself,’’ said O’Neal, 54. “I feel that after I graduated from the school, I had a lot of confidence in myself. It helped change me from this quiet, shy person to more of an outspoken person and knowing that I could do more for others and myself.’’

An Orlando native, O’Neal is a social worker at AdventHealth Care Center Waterman in Tavares. She has been employed there for the past few months but has been involved with social work for a decade.

O’Neal has held various jobs since graduating Beacon. She was a teacher’s assistant when she met Tara Thornburg. Their daughters attended Faith Lutheran School in Eustis, and Thornburg, who was a behavioral therapist, suggested O’Neal would make a good social worker.

Thornburg offered her a job.

“She was in a spot where she needed to make some changes,’’ Thornburg said. “I just felt it in my heart that she would be a very good advocate for people who can’t speak for themselves.’’

O’Neal said that although school was difficult for her — “It took longer to get things’’ — she never was diagnosed with a specific learning disability.

Her challenges instilled in her an understanding of the difficulties others may face, a lesson that serves O’Neal well as a social worker.
She assists and comforts long-term patients with whatever they need, whether it be obtaining food, personal items or clothing, arranging health checkups or providing emotional support.

O’Neal also is involved with trying to ease the transition of rehabilitation patients, who have been discharged, back into the community. For whatever duty she performs, compassion is a key component of O’Neal’s daily schedule.

O’Neal, whose degree is in human services, said social work is fulfilling.

“And it’s very stressful most of the time, but I do enjoy very much what I do,’’ she said.

Thornburg is proud of what O’Neal has become.

“That’s not an easy job,’’ Thornburg said. “Karee, even though she’s kind of shy, is always there for the resident and stands up for them, no matter what it costs her. People like that are rare.’’

Beacon students today attend a school far different than the one that O’Neal remembers. The private, nonprofit college received its accreditation in 2003, more than a decade after O’Neal was handed her diploma.

Still, one timeless fact has not changed.

“Never give up on your dreams and know that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t move forward in life,’’ O’Neal said of her message to the school’s undergraduates. “You can be accepted, and you can attain those goals if you just keep trying and just keep working on it.’’