Ellie Kovalcik and her family moved from Ohio to Bluffton almost three years ago. Her mother, Kris, says the people of the Lowcountry have rallied around her young daughter ever since.
Ellie, 12, has a form of mitochondrial disease called Leigh's disease, a progressive neurometabolic disorder that can result in the loss of head control and motor skills, loss of appetite, vomiting, irritability, seizures, lack of muscle tone and impairment of respiratory and kidney function.
When the students, faculty and staff of Bluffton Elementary School and Early Childhood Learning Center realized Ellie, who was a student at the school for two years, was suffering from this disease that has no cure, they had to get involved.
Over the past couple of years, Kovalcik said the school has raised more than $10,000 for the Race for Ellie Foundation, which works to find a cure for mitochondrial disease. The school participated in a program called Change for Change, where the students brought in change for Ellie's foundation. They sold T-shirts. And they participated in Race for Ellie on Jan. 25 at Palmetto Bluff.
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"It's just very heartwarming," Kovalcik said. "It makes you feel very loved, and that's great for me. But what it's best for is for her. She doesn't look for attention, but it definitely makes her feel good when she knows everybody is pulling for her. ... When the school does it in little competitions ... and they make it fun, it's just a neat way to do it. They make it exciting and fun for the kids to want to help."
Just as the people of Bluffton Elementary have done for Ellie, public and private schools across Beaufort County are doing good for others. School administrators see the value in philanthropy and encourage students to get involved.
Beaufort County children are filling shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, holding food drives and coat drives, volunteering at animal shelters, donating to Toys for Tots, giving blood, collecting money for Jump Rope for Heart, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Lowcountry Food Bank, participating in the March of Dimes and Relay for Life, visiting people in assisted living facilities, going on mission trips and cleaning up trash on the highway.
Battery Creek High School students have participated as Beaufort County Water Festival pirettes. They have filled shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. And every February, they put on a performance for local grandparents.
But Battery Creek High office manager and Students Against Destructive Decisions club adviser Diane Grooms said her favorite project is something called Wake Up, South Carolina.
Every year for about seven years now, Battery Creek SADD club members have set up shop at the Interstate 95 welcome center in Hardeeville the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. From noon until midnight the students serve hot chocolate, coffee and hot tea to drivers. The kids raise money to buy the supplies or get them donated. They sit outside at a table and serve travelers. They have given away as many as 5,700 cups in a two-day period.
"It's so neat because we actually have people who travel every year to go home for Thanksgiving, and they wait until they get to that rest stop to come in and get our coffee or hot chocolate," Grooms said. "It's so much fun. It's like repeat customers, and it just gives the kids such an opportunity to meet all kinds of people. They meet people from all over the U.S., Canada and folks that are traveling internationally, and they're just great ambassadors for our school and our school district."
Beaufort Academy school counselor, teacher and Interact Club advisor Amy Melville said Beaufort Academy faculty members demonstrate to students the importance of community service. For the past two years, faculty and staff have completed their own community service projects during teacher workdays. They have volunteered at Help of Beaufort, CAPA's Closet, Habitat for Humanity and also picked up trash on the highway. Each month a different faculty member is in charge of organizing the cleanup of a stretch of highway along Sam's Point Road.
Students in grades nine-12 at Beaufort Academy are required to complete a minimum of 10 hours of community service each year.
Volunteer work is not only a benefit to the recipients of the good deeds. Melville said it benefits the kids who are giving their time. Getting involved in the community gives them the opportunity to meet new people and often helps students come out of their shells. It gives them a sense of confidence.
Melville said it's rewarding to hear the kids' excitement about the projects they do. She said students should find a heart for something and stick with it. If they love animals, they should volunteer at an animal shelter. If they can't stand to see trash on the side of the road, they should get busy cleaning it up.
Bluffton Elementary students are a great example of finding a cause that hits close to home and doing something about it. Their work with Ellie Kovalcik is not the only charitable work the students have done. They participate in a different community service project each month. They collect food for Bluffton Self Help. They bring in pet supplies to donate to Palmetto Animal League and other organizations.
While all the projects are important, the students, staff and faculty have a special place in their hearts for Ellie and her cause.
Bluffton Elementary principal Christine Brown said the children really love to help Ellie. They all know who she is, even though she is now in middle school. She still comes to visit and has lunch with her sister at times, and the other kids get so excited to see her.
"It's that big connection to her," Brown said. "That's what drives the kids. ... They want to help. They want to make life better for Ellie.
"The world around them is part of who they are, and they influence that so they need to find a way to connect and give back. And it's great to find (something) that you love, that has some connection to you, that you will fully support."
Follow reporter Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.