FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Tommy O’Neil, a senior at Carroll High School, is one of three finalists for the Pay it Forward Scholarship from the University of Saint Francis. The full-tuition and fees scholarship is worth about $135,000 and is awarded to one student who exemplifies what it means to serve others.
Growing up, O’Neil spent a lot of time helping his little brother, Jack, who was born with cerebral palsy and bound to a wheelchair. The two were close and enjoyed spending time together watching movies, reading books, and playing with bead sets. Sadly, Jack died in 2018.
Tommy O’Neil realized early on what a unique opportunity he was given to grow up with someone like Jack who had special needs.
“I was raised in way to think that everybody is born equal,” he said. “No matter what physical disabilities you have, we’re all the same inside.”
He’s now involved with several programs at Carroll surrounding students with special needs like the Unified Athletics and Champions Together programs. They bring together athletes with and without disabilities who compete together in a number of sports like track and field, flag football, bocce ball, bowling, and basketball.
“It’s just a great time to connect with the special needs kids and get them more involved in, like, a team-like atmosphere,” said O’Neil. “During the day they’re all with the peers, but they have a hard time including with other kids without special needs, so this is a great way to bring them, like, more included into the school and also with different teammates and they can build relationships that way.”
While most of the sporting events are after or outside of school, O’Neil makes a point to connect with the special need students during the school day by helping them in the hallways and joining them for lunch.
“There is one of our friends named Andrew, he loves telling jokes but he has the same joke over and over and over, so last year I had to memorize like 30 different jokes to tell him to get him some new jokes,” O’Neil said, laughing.
You’ll also find Tommy O’Neil helping out in the special needs department at Carroll, working one-on-one with the students.
“If they have a workplan they’re trying to do and online activities I’ll help with that, and even if they just want a friend to talk to and they’re having a bad day I’ll be for them, too.”
And he’s vice president of the Best Buddies club which is built around bonding with special needs students inside and outside school.
“Being able to build these communities where they’re included and this atmosphere where they’re accepted is super important to me.”
WANE 15 is proud to partner with the University of Francis once again for the Pay it Forward Scholarship. A winner will be announced in early December. One student is awarded the full-tuition scholarship and two students are awarded half-tuition scholarships.