HALF MOON BAY (KPIX 5) – While taking after school horse riding lessons, a Peninsula teenager made a discovery that would change her life. This week’s Jefferson Award winner knew she had a passion for horses. Then, she discovered a special place in her heart for their young riders.

Riding lessons first drew 17-year-old Rachel Bisaillon to the Square Peg Foundation, a horse rescue center in Half Moon Bay.

“If there was no school, I’d be here all the time,” Bisaillon said with a smile.

Then the Burlingame High School senior fell in love with Square Peg’s adaptive riding program. It serves dozens of kids with autism and other developmental challenges.

“The kids are so special that I wouldn’t want to not be here,” she explained.

Throughout high school, Rachel has volunteered as a teacher every weekend. In the summer, she’s helps lead camp, six days a week. She gets emotional talking about its impact.

“Autism kids and kids with special needs are judged so hard on the outside world,” Bisaillon said, tearing up at the idea. “When they come here it’s an hour and a half, they can do whatever they want.”

To students like 17-year-old Carolyn Bielagus, Bisaillon is a compassionate friend.

“She makes me happy,” Bielagus said simply.

Carolyn’s mother, Katey Bielagus, calls Bisaillon a role model.

“Carolyn has said, ‘Maybe when I grow up, I can help other children learn how to ride horses,’” Katey Bielagus said.

Trainer Sigourney Jellins says Rachel is invaluable, from cleaning and exercising the horses to office work and researching grants.

“As she’s progressed through high school, I’ve seen her leadership skills – they really blow me out of the water!” Jellins said.

Volunteering at Square Peg keeps Bisaillon busy, but in addition, she’s been co-chair of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life event at her school. With her help, more than 450 participants at Burlingame High School raised $45,000 at this year’s relay event. For the energetic teenager, volunteering is simply a way of life.

“When I’m helping other people, it makes my life so much richer,” she explained. “I go home at the end of the day, and I’m really happy.”

So for her leadership as teacher and fundraiser, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Rachel Bisaillon.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)



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