In the fall of 2009, actor, rapper and TV personality Nick Cannon showed up at a pep rally at Smithtown High School West and singled out then-senior Leah Stoltz. He told her she’d won a Teen Nick Halo Award — short for Helping and Leading Others — for starting a support group on Long Island for girls with scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine.
Stoltz was awarded $10,000 for her organization and $10,000 for college. She was spirited to Las Vegas to meet Justin Timberlake; the pep rally and Vegas trip both aired on the awards show on Dec. 11, 2009.
In the two plus years since, Leah has been contacted by girls across the country and world wanting to start chapters. At the end of June, 145 people — 72 girls ages 7 to 19 and 73 of their parents — gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Hauppauge for three days for the first Curvy Girls International Convention. They came from 18 states, including California, Louisiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and Canada. (That's Stoltz with her arms in the air in this photo with some of the attendees.)
Stoltz was diagnosed at age 11. She had to wear a full-torso, hard plastic brace for two years and had surgery that left her with two titanium rods and 22 screws in her back. Stoltz is now a 19-year-old rising junior at American University in Washington, D.C., studying international business. We checked in with her after the gathering.
Q. How did the conference go?
A. It went really well. We had a lot of leadership workshops and advocacy discussions. There was a lot of information about new treatment techniques. We had a fashion show. With scoliosis, the No. 1 thing girls have problems with is being comfortable with what they’re wearing, whether it’s because they’re in a brace or because their shoulders or hips are uneven, or they don’t want to show their scar.
Q. You’ve got about 25 chapters now across the country and Canada. How did it feel to see everyone together?
A. It was crazy. When I saw all the girls making friends and all the adults talking to each other, it was surreal to think it was all because of something a 12-year-old thought of, and that 12-year-old was me.
Q. Where do you keep your HALO award? What did you do with the $10,000 for the organization?
A. I keep it in our living room in Smithtown. There’s a little stand for it. The $10,000 actually went to the Scoliosis Association of Long Island. We weren’t a not-for-profit yet, so we weren’t allowed to take it.
Q. Will you do a convention again next year?
A. Probably not annually. We’re thinking every two years.
Q. Is anything else in the works?
A. A book is in the works and should be published in the fall. It’s called “Straight Talk With The Curvy Girls.” It’s a collaboration between parents and kids. It has nine girls’ stories along with their parents’ stories. It’s nine girls from the original Long Island group. It has fashion tips, medical tips, surgery tips and brace tips. All the stuff we’ve had to learn ourselves.