Jenice updates some of her best-read columns this year

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CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Zakiya James: Engineering her future.

I'M HEADED to the beach - but not before circling back to check in with the subjects of some of my best-read columns this year:

* Remember Amber Andujar? She's the Camden girl whose throat was slashed during a brutal home invasion three years ago tomorrow.

She and her three siblings were home alone when a knife-wielding monster broke into their home on Ware Street and sexually assaulted Amber, who had been asleep on a couch. Her little brother, Dominick Andujar, was awakened by her screams of terror and bravely rushed in to help. That gave the severely wounded Amber time to escape to a neighbor's. Dominick wasn't as lucky. In the struggle with the attacker, his throat also was slashed. The poor boy died at the scene.

Last December, a judge sentenced Osvaldo Rivera, 34, to life in prison plus 35 years for the attack.

Amber's family has struggled to move forward, but it hasn't been easy. There's never enough money. There are therapy visits and doctors' appointments, and always the aching loss of little Dominick. The one bright spot that the three sisters cling to is Amber's quinceanera, scheduled for Sept. 12.

At first, Amber had been under the misguided impression that she was no longer eligible to participate in this coming-of-age ceremony celebrated by Latinas. But her mother made sure she understood that, "In God's eyes and everybody else's eyes, you are still a pure young lady." Although she didn't know how she was going to pay for it, Debbie Burgos vowed that her daughter would have a Sweet 15 celebration.

A relative created a GoFundMe account for Amber in March, seeking $2,500 to finance the party. Donations began pouring in, especially after the Daily News put Amber on the front page March 17. People moved by Amber's story sent in donations of $10 or $100. Those who were short on cash offered services such as makeup application and decorating the hall. As of press time, donations had reached more than $17,000.

Because a quinceanera is only one day, Burgos wisely used some to pay for Amber's eighth-grade class trip and prom and also to outfit her with new uniforms and shoes for the upcoming school year. She also took Amber to see a plastic surgeon. Her neck wounds are still visible, but they don't mar her delicate beauty.

The teen, however, needs more surgery to get rid of scar tissue and to help improve her swallowing. She has a lot of emotional healing to do, as well.

On the eve of tomorrow's ugly anniversary, family members are bracing themselves to get through all of the painful memories of that awful night. But, blessedly, after the dark comes light. Good triumphs over evil. And when Amber climbs onto her donated throne chair on Sept. 12 to be carried triumphantly into the church for her Egyptian-themed ceremony, she'll get to experience that firsthand.

* Another GoFundMe campaign got me fired up to write about Zakiya James, 17. I saw that the future civil engineer was soliciting donations for tuition, and I got mad.

America isn't producing enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields as it is. Other countries are getting ahead of us. Part of the reason we are falling behind is that we don't do enough to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as Zakiya's.

The Washington Post first wrote about Zakiya's tuition dilemma, and I followed suit in April because it's outrageous that Zakiya, whose goal is to have a doctorate by 25 and to open her own engineering firm, should be in this situation.

Well, I'm happy to report that the good souls in Philadelphia and elsewhere came through for Zakiya. Generous readers have donated $28,880. Zakiya used that to pay for the last two quarters, but still needs $10,000 for the summer quarter, which is just about over, and another $10,000 for the upcoming fall term.

Zakiya can submit an appeal and try to get more financial aid. She also plans to apply for scholarships and to try for student loans. But, first, there are final exams to get through. Classes at Drexel University end today. I tried to have another sit-down with Zakiya, but she is so intent on doing well that she put me off. I was proud of her for that. She's completely focused on her education - as she should be. She shouldn't have to worry about tuition bills or pesky columnists.

* I annoyed a lot of readers, particularly male ones, with a column in May about a controversial effort in New Jersey that would make sexual assault by deception illegal.

The bill, introduced late last year by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, was inspired by a divorced mom-turned-activist named Mischele Lewis. The Daily News chronicled her story of meeting a con man online, as did NBC's "Dateline."

The day we put Lewis on the front page, my inbox was deluged with angry emails, mainly from men. The comments on Philly.com had to be turned off, as readers were harsh.

Lewis, a registered nurse, hasn't let the negativity stop her. The old saying "once bitten and twice shy" is true in her case, though. Earlier this month, she posted a status update on Facebook warning women about a man who she suspects had tried to scam her.

Meanwhile, the bill that would make sexual assault by deception illegal is languishing.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com