A Life Lived: Shaina Horton

Cliff Palermo and Shaina Horton with their baby, Zoe, in 2010. Zoe was born in April of that year; Horton was diagnosed with cancer a few months later.

Horton family photo

Shaina Horton was barely more than a teenager herself when she got a job designing the area the Atlantic City Free Public Library calls its Teen Space.

It was 2009, and she was 23, fairly fresh out of Philadelphia University. She had the credentials: Her mother, LeeAnne Horton DiMatteo, said Shaina had recently left a job with a Philadelphia architecture firm to move home.

At the time, she was working at an Ocean City coffee shop, the Grind Garage. But when a library staffer stopped in for coffee, she stepped into a room the same shape as the Teen Space, with an amazing design - done mainly by the girl behind the counter. Horton ran the Grind Garage with her boyfriend, Cliff Palermo.

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Maureen Moffit, the library's children's-service coordinator, worked closely with Horton on the Teen Space for months. Moffit was impressed "that someone so young could be so talented, so confident, so energetic and so creative. She just really plunged into this project."

Horton plunged into life for her first 24 years. Then, for the last two, the Somers Point woman plunged into beating death. She lost her fight last month - Shaina died at 26, of cancer. She had been diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, a quick-growing cancer of the uterus, just months after she gave birth to her baby with Palermo, Zoe, in April 2010.

Her mom said Shaina was always a healthy kid - little brother Keven was the sickly one. But when she didn't bounce back from having her baby, it took months for doctors to discover her cancer, which by then was in her brain, liver and lungs.

Shaina went into a coma, and needed brain surgery and chemotherapy. Her mom moved into the hospital; they shared a room for nine months. Several times, doctors warned that Shaina wouldn't last much longer.

But then she improved, was pronounced cancer-free and went home with her baby. Life was good - until the cancer came back in August.

Shaina never gave up. But the disease didn't either.

Through the whole ordeal, her family was amazed by her toughness - and they weren't the only ones. She had a mantra - "Suck it up, buttercup" - and she inspired people she met everywhere, including the hospital.

"Her doctors couldn't believe her," her mom said. "All the things they told me she'd never do, she did."

Palermo, of Ocean City, said Zoe misses her mom. But a bit north, in Atlantic City, Shaina still manages to help kids at the library's Teen Space.

"The test of a good design is that the work they created continues to draw in patrons years later," Moffit said. "Now it's been three or four years, and there's still a real appreciation for the space itself. It's still intact ... and still very popular."

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