Getting through airport security can be unnerving for any non-frequent passengers, so imagine how anxious it can make someone with developmental challenges.

To help calm fears about the unknown, on March 9, members of Programs for Exceptional People (PEP) got a snapshot of what to expect from the TSA team at Hilton Head Airport.

The onsite workshop is part of the nationwide Autism Travel Awareness program, sponsored by TSA and American Airlines, to help educate and alleviate concerns and fears of the special needs community members who might be unfamiliar with pre-flight procedures.

Many of PEP’s members suffer from anxiety when it comes to personal touching, such as pat-downs and screenings, as well as loud, crowded areas, such as airport terminals.

The TSA volunteered their services to work with PEP, providing both instruction and understanding as they walked the group through a step-by-step process explaining how pre-flight procedures work.

The event was set up by PEP executive director Steve Maglione and lead program specialist Denise Balsamo.

Balsamo has spent more than 36 years as a teacher working with special needs students. After retiring on Hilton Head Island, Balsamo began working with PEP to further advocate their mission and provide the help necessary for special needs adults.

“Our goal is to help our members in a variety of ways, providing them the opportunity to work and excel in the community,” said Balsamo. “PEP is the only type of program in the area that provides the services that we have.”

PEP’s programs are as varied as they are colorful. Members enjoy a cheerleading squad, a bowling team, pottery classes and Special Olympics activities, among others. The bowling team recently returned from a national Special Olympics competition.

The organization has established partnerships with local businesses such as Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Walgreens, TJ Maxx, and McDonalds to provide vital volunteer and actual job experience. The programs are used to encourage social interaction and afford the opportunities to special needs adults that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

PEP began in 1986, when a group of parents got together to plan activities for their six special needs young adult children. Now, they serve more than 60 and their numbers are growing.

The group hosts an annual gala, serving as a principal fundraiser, complete with a market place and silent auction thanks to the support of more than 400 local merchants.

Another Autism Travel Awareness program will be held at 9:30 a.m. March 23 at Hilton Head Airport.

To learn more about the organization, visit

Sam Posthuma of Bluffton is a freelance writer and production assistant for The Bluffton Sun.