Ask anyone who knows Hannah Harley and her middle name says it all.
Hannah loves life. For the 18-year-old Millsap High School senior, that life almost ended before it had a chance to begin.
Hannah is a survivor of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a term used to describe the signs and symptoms resulting from violent shaking or impacting the head of an infant or small child. She endured multiple episodes of this from her biological mother's live-in boyfriend, the last of which sent her to an emergency in an unconscious state with abusive head trauma.
Hannah spent 16 days in the prenatal intensive care unit, nearly slipping away from life numerous times. Though a tiny baby, she fought and survived. Her tormentor was sent to prison, where he remains today, and Hannah has grown up to accomplish many things.
Not the least of those accomplishments is her success in the equestrian world. For the past six years she has ridden with Stars and Strides Stables in Weatherford, and she has won numerous awards.
"Special needs children thrive on equitherapy," said her grandfather, Jim Harley. "This activity can bring your child, the horse, and yourself together in a peaceful atmosphere. It is a good time for all to bond."
Hannah loves horse therapy, special needs rodeos, Challenger League Baseball and walking the ocean beaches.
How has Hannah progressed mentally over the years?
Hannah's learning capabilities slowed immensely several years ago, Jim said. She can memorize some things, but mentally functions as a 6-year old.
"She cannot read, write, or tell you what 2 plus 2 is," he said.
But she very much understands horses and her love for them. She also knows how to bring home awards working with them.
"In Rodeo, Hannah is a totally different person on a horse," Jim said. "She maintains poise and control throughout the competition. She can memorize what she needs to do, win a buckle (first place), or place very high in the competition standings."
Last year in the Houston Top Hands Rodeo, Hannah won three belt buckles (out of three competitions). This year in the Fort Worth Rodeo, she garnered high points honors in her division.
"Even though this was a new high in any of her competitions, it was just another medal to her," Jim said.
"In life, Hannah has beaten the odds from near death and a prognosis in the ER that she would never walk, talk, laugh, or be able to eat on her own again. Hannah has had a very hard struggle with physical disabilities and learning impairments. The left side of her brain is gone. She remains mostly paralyzed on her right side.
"Fortunately, Hannah is in a small school district with a strong special education department. Hannah is accepted by everyone in school for what she is, and what she can do, or what she may not be able to do."
Millsap Superintendent Deann Lee said Hannah is an inspiration to others in the district, including Lee herself.
"Hannah is an energetic young lady with a smile as big as Texas. She makes everyone she comes in to contact with a better person because she shows us that each day is an opportunity to enjoy life no matter what you might be facing," she said. "Hannah wants all that life will give her and she’s not afraid to go get it. Her Bulldog family loves her and is very proud of her."
Hannah lives with her grandparents following the passing of her father in 2010 after a bout with cancer.
"Hannah and her dad always had a very close and loving relationship. Hannah misses him very much," Jim said.
Hannah also sees her mother on a somewhat standardized visitation schedule.
Jim said a few years ago, a professional film crew spent a couple days at their home. They did a story on SBS and Hannah was one of four children featured in the film "The Life Sentence."
"This video was produced by an organization called COPE24 out of Missouri. It is shown in high school environments in several states as a learning tool to show parenting skills," Jim said. "I traveled the state for a couple years with the Shaken Baby Alliance based out of Fort Worth. We educated first responders, hospital staff, prosecutors, CPS (Child Protective Services) and police officers on what to look for in child abuse cases."
The man who harmed Hannah remains in prison, serving a 17-year sentence that was handed down in 2004.
"His parole has been denied four times. He still has not admitted his guilt in abusing Hannah," Jim said.
Jim said he'd like a higher awareness of this type of abuse. And he has a simple, but strong message to parents.
"Be very careful who you put your child's welfare in. If you suspect something is wrong, it most likely is," he said. "Report it, it is your legal obligation. Even though you must first report abuse to CPS, involve the police, and do what you can to get safely between the child and the perpetrator. In Hannah's case, all the safeguards for preventing her abuse fell through the cracks.
"Love your children. Do not give up on them. Your child will love you back, and do the best they can for you."