Murrieta teen recognized for excellence, excels despite blindness

Lillyannah Russo, 17, was the recipient of Stevie Wonder Star Student Award for 2017. Russo is pictured with Wonder’s son and daughter, Sophia and Kwame Morris. Courtesy photo

A 17-year-old Murrieta girl who is blind was recently honored with a special award for her all-around exceptionalism during an event in Los Angeles Dec. 16.

Lillyannah Russo was recently presented with the Stevie Wonder Star Student Award, which recognizes a student who has performed in an exceptional manner in all areas of their lives.

The award was presented to Russo at the Junior Blind Children’s Holiday Carnival in Los Angeles by Wonder’s son and daughter, Sophia and Kwame Morris.

Russo was born with a condition that caused her to have significant vision loss and only limited light perception, but in spite of that she has persevered in both school and life.

She has excelled in her classes at the Murrieta Canyon Academy and while most 17-year-olds are still a bit preoccupied with high school classes, Russo has finished hers.

“She’s actually graduated,” Russo’s mother, Jean Russo, said. “She took the California State Testing to test out of high school so she graduated in October of this year.”

The 17-year-old has a bevy of passions, including singing. She’s performed at Disneyland as well as a candlelight procession as part of her high school choir.

Perhaps the thing that she’s most passionate about is para-equestrian events and equitation therapy.

Equitation therapy is something that is often used to help people with both physical and mental disabilities by helping them to form a bond with the horse they’re riding.

Lillyannah, who suffered from some trust issues from going blind, found the experience to be extremely helpful, her mother said.

The teen has a favorite horse she likes to ride with, an Andalusian-Arabian mix named Cherry.

“The horse helped to instill better trust in people and in animals, and the equitation therapy is what helped to develop those things,” she said.

In spite of her sight limitations, Lillyannah Russo put much effort into horse-riding and has become quite skilled at it.

“The biggest challenge we had was finding a coach,” Jean Russo said. “But other than that, she really is a natural; she takes to riding like a fish to swimming.”

Lillyannah Russo and her coach recently completed a clinic on para-dressage. Dressage is a form of horse training competition, often considered an art form.

“They look as though they’re going to start competing for para-dressage with the aim of going to the paralympics,” Jean Russo said.

Lillyannah Russo has been a part of Junior Blind of America, which provided the award, since the time that she was 10.

The Los Angeles-based organization seeks to help blind and visually impaired children and adults to achieve their goals.

Stevie Wonder, a Junior Blind Board Member for nearly 10 years, has donated more than $700,000 in support of Junior Blinds programs.

Jean Russo said she and her daughter were “stunned” by the nomination, noting “It’s not something we ever expected.”

But the elder Russo said she’s extremely proud of her daughter and all that she’s accomplished.

“She’s just fantastic,” she said.

Now that the teen is done with high school, she is planning on studying equitation science in college and hopes to help children with disabilities through that, the same way she was helped.

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