Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
HAMMOND, LA - Hundreds of students around the metro area are marking a milestone this weekend. But for one student in particular, graduation holds special meaning.
Ashlee Stokes, now 18, has fought hard over the last three years.
"Proud of her, very proud," said Ashlee's father, David Stokes.
Against all odds, Ashlee was able to put on a cap and gown Saturday, and graduate with her high school class.
"She could have been a cross on the side of the road, and we're blessed to have her in our lives every single day," said State Police Trooper Melissa Matey, public relations officer for Troop B.
Ashlee's struggle began in May of 2008, when a drunk driver slammed into the car Ashlee was driving and nearly killed her. Trooper Dustin Dwight remembers it well.
"How proud I am and amazed at the miracle this really is," said Dwight at Ashlee's graduation ceremony. "This is an amazing change from what we saw the day of the crash until today."
The Northshore High School cheerleader spent months in a coma, missed a year of school, and is still learning to walk, speak, and feed herself.
"So it just brings a lot of joy to me to see her, in this atmosphere. Beautiful job sweetheart," said Stokes, smiiling at his daughter.
For over a year, the Slidell teen's goal has been to walk across the stage at her graduation ceremony and hold her diploma.
And Saturday, her father helped her from her wheelchair, and Ashlee was able to do so. Her accomplishment was met with moist eyes and a standing ovation.
And, with a journey of just a few feet, Ashlee summed up years of hard work.
"I don't think you can even measure the distance that our family has come, the little things that you collect as treasures, they're so much different for us than they were before this accident," said Stokes.
"I'm just so so proud of her, everything that she's been through, it's good to see her come so far," said Ashlee's mother, Karen Stokes.
Ashlee has touched so many along the way. In October, her classmates voted her Homecoming Queen. And she now works with state troopers to educate others about the dangers of drunk driving.
"You have to hold back tears a little bit because she's just a wonderful girl," said Dr. Michael Peterson, principal of Northshore High School.
And while Ashlee's journey Saturday was nearly three years in the making, it's not over yet.
"We know that she's not finished," said David Stokes, tears rolling down his face. "This is another sense of accomplishment, for her, for us, and for all these other kids to be able to share."
"We're just looking for the next step, the next step in life," said Karen Stokes, who handed her daughter flowers after the graduation.
And Ashlee already knows what she wants that step to be.
Though speaking is still difficult, Ashlee was able to clearly say, "LSU."
It's another sign Ashlee won't stop fighting until she reaches her next goal.
Ashlee's family has started a non-profit organization called "Ashlee's Angels." It offers free rides to anyone who has had too much to drink. For more information, call 1-800-506-6384 or log onto ashleesangels.com/.