EVERETT — She doesn’t define herself by the standards others set.
Kortney Danson, who graduated from Mariner High School last week, was born with a condition that causes hundreds of tiny tumors and cysts to swell inside her left cheek and upper lip, paralyzing her facial expressions.
She has undergone more agonizing surgeries to remove the growths than she can count. She was 11 months old when she had her first. Her most recent was shortly before mid-winter break of her senior year. Her future includes surgeries every two years.
Danson, 18, doesn’t dwell on her condition. Instead, she reaches out to help others.
The daughter of Bob and Melissa Danson, of Lynnwood, marked her four years of high school by working with special-education students and teaching teens to tap dance.
Mariner history teacher Kevin Sutton said Danson is one of the most inspiring students he’s had in more than two decades in the classroom. Unlike many teens, he said, she never seemed to doubt her ability, to take on a negative attitude or to feel sorry for herself — despite enduring ongoing medical problems and multiple operations.
“Throughout all of that she’s been this outstandingly positive person,” Sutton said. “She’s found her niche and just went for it.”
Danson is one of roughly 7,000 Snohomish County high school students who make up the Class of 2016 this spring.
As a freshman, she got involved with children with various limitations while teaching swim lessons at the Mountlake Terrace Recreation Pavilion. She helped them overcome challenges brought on by all kinds of conditions, including Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, visual impairment and developmental delays.
Danson’s own experience of having to take a different course drove her to find the best way to the water for each of her swimmers.
“I’ve been a guinea pig my whole life,” she said, referring to facing unknowns of her medical treatment.
She has learned from her swimmers, too.
Danson discovered that sometimes even the smallest of accomplishments can be major milestones. For her students, each win moved them closer to independence.
“It opened my eyes to just how special each kid is,” she said.
Danson also works with children who have serious medical conditions as a junior counselor at Camp Korey in Carnation. She got to know the old dairy farm as a camper before taking a leadership role.
Danson said she started to see her condition as a difference in fifth-grade when classmates gravitated into different cliques. At camp, she made her first lasting friends.
Danson also volunteered during her senior year in special-ed classrooms at Mariner, guiding students as they learned to speak, read or remember numbers. Her goal was to help them graduate.
“It’s about preparing them to meet state standards in a special way,” she said.
Beyond her volunteer work, Danson has found creative ways to express herself. She loves to dance, especially when she has tap shoes on her feet. She’s been at it since she was 2.
“I love tap solely because you can put force into it,” she said. “The louder you are the better.”
Danson has succeeded academically, earning a place in the National Honor Society. She took four years of Spanish, which proved handy on a trip to Europe last year that included stops in Madrid and Barcelona.
Danson plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or special education. She’s headed to Western Washington University in the fall.
“My message is the same as my senior quote,” she said. “‘You wouldn’t have to think outside the box if you didn’t put one there in the first place.’”
Coming Sunday in The Daily Herald: More profiles of local graduates whose futures are bright.