Esther Kang

Palos Verdes high graduate takes gap year to arm children around the world with ukulele, courage to overcome

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Danielle Pellizzeri. Courtesy of Marco Pellizzeri

Danielle Pellizzeri. Courtesy of Marco Pellizzeri

On a Sunday afternoon in June, Danielle Pellizzeri stood center stage inside the Palos Verdes High School gymnasium, where some 600 pairs of eyes watched her silently. Closely cradling her ukulele, the 17-year-old senior faced the class baccalaureate graduates and sang an uplifting ballad called “Reach,” something she and her mother had recently written together.

One year prior to this moment, the Palos Verdes resident had believed she hit rock bottom in her young life. In the last months of her junior year, she found herself debilitated by chronic headaches, stomach aches, allergies and insomnia. Doctors and specialists couldn’t pinpoint a cause. Usually bright and extroverted, she spiraled into a deep depression; it was a challenge each day just getting out of bed. Her parents pulled her out of school and hired a home hospital tutor six days a week.

“It was really rough,” she recalled. “The first step was accepting it … Once I accepted it, I believe that I was able to grow.”

Pellizzeri, who was diagnosed with ADHD in the sixth grade, was encouraged by her longtime special ed teacher Bobbi Jo Thompson to make meaning of it all. Overcoming this struggle was meant to be a part of her journey, a stepping stone onto becoming a stronger version of herself. Turning to music and her faith in God, she felt inspired with a vision: to travel to different parts of the world, particularly underprivileged areas, and share the gift of music by teaching kids to play the ukulele.

In the last few months, her vision has crystallized into reality. She’s raised several thousand dollars — largely from selling hard copy CDs of her music — and collected 30 ukuleles donated by Kala Brand Music Co. and Cordoba Music Group.

Under her organization UkeCANdoit, Pellizzeri is embarking on her first tour this summer: she’s amidst a six-week internship at Camp Hope for Kids in Philadelphia where she’s mentoring kids, giving motivational speeches and teaching ukulele classes. After another stint as a camp counselor at the same site, she’ll be headed to Kingston, Jamaica for several weeks to hand out ukuleles and teach the youth in government-run homes.

A UkeCanDoIt class at Camp Hope. Courtesy of Marco Pellizzeri

A UkeCanDoIt class at Camp Hope for Kids in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Marco Pellizzeri

Come September, she’s relocating to Tucson where she’ll work as an AmeriCorp fellow for a year with Arts for All, a nonprofit that provides art education to children with special needs. In fall of 2015, she will attend the University of Arizona as a sociology major. During her time there, she plans to reach out to Native American reservations in the area with UkeCANdoit.

“It really brings tears to my eyes just thinking that she’s pushing herself to go do, to go and be,” said her father Marco Pellizzeri, a minister at South Bay Church. “She’s trying to make lemonade out of her lemons and use her pain and frustration and the unknowns to help and motivate others.”

Danielle, who taught herself how to play the ukulele at 13, is a natural musician. Her rich alto voice is pitch perfect and assured beyond her years. She’s already performed at countless talent shows and weddings. And while she wants to continue pursuing music, becoming famous is not a priority. She doesn’t want to be the primary beneficiary of her gifts, she explained.

“UkeCANdoit is a more important dream for me,” Pellizzeri said. “Doing what I love out of enjoyment is great but there’s more to it than that. I really wanna be able to tie my talent, my faith and my stories of overcoming into one. I believe that God is going to use me to point others to him, to inspire others to get to him.”

The motto of UkeCANdoit is a quote from William G.T. Shedd: “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Pellizzeri says she wants to empower others to step out of their comfort zone, find their passions and reach for their dreams, just as she is.

“Because I’ve been given to so much, I feel driven to give to others,” Pellizzeri said. “I’ve experienced a lot of joys doing that, whether it’s in a big or small way.”

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