James Island run helps students with disabilities

Published: Sep. 30, 2014 at 1:49 AM EDT
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Meagan Orton isn't a typical Citadel graduate student.

She's a tall blonde and a former Miss College of Charleston.

"The Citadel is the last school I thought I would ever be a part of," Orton said.

There's something else that makes her unique. She lost hearing in one ear when she was a sophomore at the College of Charleston.

"Finals week, Spring semester, and I'm giving a presentation in front of my entire psychology class and it's like a light switch," Orton said. "Boom. It's off."

Doctors still don't know why Megan went partially deaf. They begged her to take a semester off while she underwent treatment that eventually left her death in both ears for two weeks.

"I learned to lip read," Orton said. "When you're forced to do something, it's amazing what your body will do to recover."

Megan stayed in school and eventually got a cochlear implant called a BAHA or bone-anchored hearing aid to restore her hearing, but she faced another problem, paying for school.

That's when the Charleston-based Gavalas Kolanko Foundation came to her aid. The organization gives scholarships so students with disabilities like Orton can attend college.

The James Island Connector Run, held for the last 16 years, is its biggest fundraiser, bringing in $100,000 last year alone.

"Meagan is just absolutely incredible," Nick Gavalas, one of the founders of the foundation said. "This is the third year that she's been awarded the scholarship. You meet Meagan and you know she's simply going to be successful regardless and that's what really excited us about her."

In the 15 years since the foundation was created, it's raised more than $500,000 and given out 95 scholarships.

"We're not just looking for students with physical disabilities," Gavalas said. "We're looking for students that have demonstrated this incredible desire to be successful in spite of their disabilities."

"Honestly, the scholarship, the money is so helpful because I have extra expenses when it comes to my BAHA implant," Orton said. "I still have to have procedures in my left ear, my good ear."

Now, Orton is facing another challenge. This summer she started having heart issues that doctors still haven't been able to diagnose and forcing her to take the semester off. Despite all of that, she's still working on classes online and working towards a master degree in leadership.

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