Bluffton teen Olivia Peluso has a heart for people with special needs, and has made a point to go above and beyond to advocate for them.
During the summer before her junior year in high school, Olivia began working with special needs children at a summer camp at Hilton Head's Island Recreation Association. She worked in the program last summer as well.
"That's when I really started to be super passionate about helping children with special needs and began to see that someone needed to advocate for them," Olivia said. "So I was just like, 'I'll do it.'"
Now a senior at May River High School, Olivia was enrolled in a unified physical education class last semester. The class includes both special and general education students.
Knowing that Olivia had experience working with children with disabilities, her P.E. teacher, Shannon Andrus, asked her for suggestions on activities to do in class. While brainstorming with Andrus, Olivia learned that her school needed $4,000 worth of adaptable P.E. equipment for the special needs students.
The two came up with a wish list, which included a bowling set with a ramp for students in wheelchairs, small basketballs and volleyballs with visuals that show students how to hold them properly, a shuffleboard set, and mini projectors to be used for playing Just Dance.
Olivia got busy researching different grants that she might be able to get for purchasing the equipment.
"That was all her," Andrus said in a video interview from Beaufort County School District. "She saw what we needed in class to help them express themselves. ... The fact that she took it upon herself shows just the person she is. She's a great student, she's an advocate for everybody, and special education students especially."
Special Olympics South Carolina found out what Olivia was doing and donated $1,000 to her cause. The nonprofit organization also started an online fundraiser to help Olivia meet her goal.
Since then, the group has raised about $500 more, according to SOAR Special Recreation director Kathy Cramer said.
Olivia reached out to Cramer to ask for guidance, and she encouraged the 17-year-old to come up with her own plan.
"It's Olivia's voice," Cramer said. "It's not my voice. It's not your voice. It's someone of the same age group helping. ... Teachers and adults - all of us - should help younger generations learn how to cause change, not just tell them what to do. "
Although she has not yet decided where she wants to attend college, Olivia wants to pursue a career in special education.
A member of the National Honor Society and the National Beta Club, Olivia plays varsity basketball and soccer at May River High. She was also a member of the Hilton Head-Bluffton Junior Leadership program.
"My goal with this whole thing was to just give the students in the special education class the opportunity to be as successful as they can be," Olivia said.
To donate to the fundraiser, visit classy.org/give/263999/#!/donation/checkout.
Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.