Twenty years ago, Dr. Ron Kolanko was privately helping students afford college when he attended a medical meeting in Pittsburgh where he met another doctor who had lost both of his legs. Kolanko, owner and Board Chairman of Atlantic Occupational Health, Inc., was deeply moved.

“In spite of his challenge, he helped put himself through school,” recalls Kolanko, who knew then and there that he wanted to turn his focus to helping students with physical disabilities.

Upon his return to Charleston, Kolanko told everyone he met about his idea to empower those with physical disabilities to pursue a college degree. One of the people he told was a woman who worked for insurance agent Nick Gavalas, and that led to a meeting.

“We met for lunch and an hour’s lunch lasted five hours,” says Kolanko, adding that attorney Jerry Wigger then put the paper work together pro bono to form the Gavalas Kolanko Foundation.

Scholarship winner Marlayah Legare

Scholarship recipient Marlayah Legare with Nick Gavalas and Dr. Ron Kolanko. (Photos by Heather Moran)

They awarded the first scholarship in 1999, and counting the 15 recipients at the annual ceremony on Sept. 17, 2019, in Alumni Hall at the College of Charleston, more than 200 students have received one, bringing the total amount of scholarships awarded to over $1 million. Donations come from a variety of fund-raising initiatives, including the annual Charleston James Island Connector Run, which will be held on Oct. 26, 2019.

Up until five years ago, all of the scholarship recipients were CofC students, but now recipients come from all the local colleges. This year seven scholarship winners came from the College of Charleston, including Marlayah Legare, Sarah Hunter, Caroline Boscia, Scarlett Duncan, Lauryn Eason, Morgan Sweeney and Leah Martin.

“College is so expensive, it’s nice to have something to help you along,” says Hunter, a junior biology major from Charleston. “It also gives you a motivation to work hard and do your best. I hope to be able to pay it forward someday.”

People with disabilities who have degrees have better employment outcomes than those who don’t, notes Deborah Freel Mihal, the director of the College’s Center for Disability Services.

“So a college education is critical, and scholarships help that ultimate goal,” Mihal says. “It’s a neat scholarship in how they approach awarding it. Each year, if you meet the requirements, you get more. You can go up $1,500 between your freshmen year and your senior year, so that’s a biggie. ”

The ceremony even attracted the interest of Charleston’s mayor, John Tecklenburg, who attended the event.

“My youngest brother was born with 95 percent hearing loss, so even in my own family I realized the critical importance of education for those with needs,” he said. “He’s an amazing success story, and you’ve got a room full of those amazing success stories here tonight, and I just wanted to show my support.”

Featured image: Dr. Ron Kolanko, Sandy Tecklenburg, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, College of Charleston President Andrew T. Hsu and alumnus Alex Jackson ’10 (M.A. ’14).