Danielle Tennison showing off her arm crutches, wheelchair and T-shirt message. JAALA SMITH/JAALA’S PHOTOGRAPHY

If you’ve been around Bluffton for a while, you know the name Tennison. Iris was a beloved school teacher in town and the family has always put giving back to the community first.

Even when she faced so many personal battles, Iris’s daughter Danielle always put others first. Now, she’s trying to win a unique pageant in hopes of inspiring folks in town and far beyond the welcome signs.

Danielle is raising money for a trip to Greenville for the Ms. Wheelchair South Carolina competition in February.

“I want people to hear my story, to see that everyone has their own normal,” she said. “There are no disabilities, just roadblocks.” She has battled spina bifida, a rare and debilitating condition, since birth.

“There’s an opening in your spine, because the neural tube doesn’t close all the way, so doctors could literally put their fingers into my back,” Tennison said. “There was an emergency surgery to close my spine, but due to the opening, it altered some of my body functions.”

If you follow Tennison on social media, you know she never lets roadblocks limit her. The 37-year-old used arm crutches to walk until about eight years ago. She gained pregnancy weight while carrying her 13-year-old daughter, Donshea, pounds that never came off and caused her to pivot to a wheelchair.

“I was so against a wheelchair, but when I realized it was actually going to give me more mobility, I embraced it full-on and I love it,” she said. “I’d love an electric chair, but pushing this thing has given me some muscular arms.”

When the pandemic quarantine limited her ability to be outside, she decided to find a different way to connect with people. Tennison wrote a children’s book, “Know You Are Special,” based on her experiences growing up as the “disabled one.”

“I based it on a day in my life in fifth grade at M.C. Riley and I actually call the character Shea after my daughter,” she said. “It’s meant to educate kids that just because you are different, you are both normal and special all at once. If you see it in the right light, it can become like a superpower.”

She wrote the story in a couple hours, then researched how to find someone to publish it. Tennison found the right connection with Rincon-based Gifts From Above Publishing. “Know You Are Special” was published in January.

“I haven’t done a ton of in-person promotion because of COVID, but through social media, we’ve really found an audience and spread the word,” said Tennison, who is currently working on a follow-up book she hopes to publish later this year.

“This whole experience made me realize how important it is to have voices out there telling kids today what we didn’t hear as much when I was a kid,” she said. “That ‘disabled’ is just a word, that you can be whatever you want, and that folks that treat you as abnormal have zero power over you.”

Now an author, Tennison said the process has inspired her to knock another item off her bucket list.

“If I’m going to be in this wheelchair most of the time, I’m going to make the most out of it. I’m going to be Ms. Wheelchair,” she said.

Miss Wheelchair USA is an organization focused on celebrating the achievements of women with disabilities. It is only one of two disabled-focused pageants among the 5,000 different pageants held annually. The national winner wins a speaking and appearance contract along with a slew of gifts and opportunities.

Tennison’s active and positive social media work and the message behind “Know You Are Special” drew the attention of South Carolina pageant officials, who asked her if she’d participate in this year’s competition.

“This is an amazing chance to be an advocate, to share my story, to really effect change for others,” Tennison said. “I’m not big on asking for help from others, but the end goal is worth putting myself out there a little bit and making the ask.”

Tennison has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise at least $1,000 to help offset her travel costs for the Greenville event. She has no intention of stopping there, with her eyes on the national contest in July 2022 in Ohio.

“I want to be a voice for those who have no voice, who don’t know who to contact when they hit roadblocks, who don’t have the support system I have,” said Tennison, who credits Iris, her sister Angela and her cousin, Ashley Cannick, atop the list of her network of support. “Part of what we struggle with is we don’t want help, we want to be independent. But I literally have trouble opening doors. Every building should have wheelchair accessible ramps and electric doors.”

Tennison is a community advocate for the disabled in Bluffton and has seen positive change in her hometown in helping disabled people live normal lives.

“There’s still work to do, but you have to know which doors to bang on. I’m always at that door, I want to be that advocate for others on a larger scale,” she said. “I want to use this platform to bang on some bigger doors.”

Spina bifida is considered a rare condition, with about 200,000 cases per year diagnosed nationwide. Little is known about what causes it or what can prevent it. Doctors can know recognize it before birth and do corrective surgeries pre-birth to try to correct the spine opening.

October is National Spina Bifida Awareness Month, a time of year where Tennison is especially active in spreading her message. But she hopes a pageant win will allow her to have an impact to a wider audience.

“We need more dollars for research and that’s part of the work ahead, but mostly, it’s about spreading positivity, in showing that we will not let this define us,” Tennison said. “It’s just one chapter in a life’s worth of story telling.”

To support Tennison’s Ms. Wheelchair South Carolina campaign, go online to GoFundMe.com and search “Danielle Rolls For Ms. Wheelchair SC 2022.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.