Samantha Petersen, 18, of South Windsor, Conn., a home-schooled senior, founded a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about scoliosis, screens children in low-income communities for the disease, and offers emotional support to those undergoing corrective surgery. When Samantha was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis that was causing intense pain and impeding her breathing and neurological functions. It took me from being a top state swimmer to disability, said Samantha. Even simple tasks such as brushing my hair became a struggle. I was only a kid but I felt old and broken. Four years later, Samantha underwent a complicated spinal fusion surgery that she calls the gift of a second chance at life. It was this chance that inspired her to want to make a difference in the lives of others, many of whom feel powerless and isolated by the disease, she said.
To educate others about scoliosis and raise funds for her nonprofit, Samantha launched a website, distributed informational booklets, applied for grants, and began recruiting teachers, medical professionals, and corporate and community leaders to help. She and her network then began training laypeople and professionals to identify the disease in children by conducting training sessions and school screenings, including outreach trips to some of the poorest communities in the country. Samantha also works to bring comfort to scoliosis patients in hospitals in the U.S. and abroad by providing blankets and post-operative PillowPets sewn by volunteers in 30 chapters of her organization. I strive for a day when everyone, everywhere, has access to and receives proper medical care so they all have the chance to live healthy, productive lives, Samantha said.