Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Peterson

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Samantha Peterson
The Shape Shifter
At 10, Samantha Peterson hoped to become an Olympic swimmer. At 11, a school nurse diagnosed her with scoliosis. At 13, back pain and breathing issues forced her to give up swimming—and with it, she thought, her dreams.

Peterson’s spine curved 42 degrees and was getting worse even though she wore a back brace 24/7. Four orthopedic surgeons were baffled; eventually, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting connective tissue. She required surgery that involved two 18-inch rods, 17 screws, and a bone graft fusing 15 of her vertebrae.

At age 15, Peterson started learning how to move again—no twisting, lots of squatting. And once she began to feel better, she was inspired to start Shift Scoliosis, a nonprofit that provides resources for scoliosis patients: “I wanted to help make life better for kids like me.” Initially she focused on donating blankets to post-op children in developing countries, but one day she heard from a hospital that was turning away the gifts; its patients’ conditions had been diagnosed at such an advanced stage that doctors were sending children home, saying there was nothing they could do. So Peterson set her sights on a new dream: to initiate mass scoliosis screenings.

To date, Shift has helped screen more than 4,000 American children, and that number could soon skyrocket. This year Peterson will beta test a medical device she helped develop to detect scoliosis in school-age kids earlier than ever before. For her work, Peterson was recently recognized by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. Go to to learn more about Peterson and maybe even find ways that you, too, can be a changemaker.