Mariel’s gift

Her courageous journey inspired many. Now her equipment donation will enhance OT education.

By Katarina Fiorentino, B.H.S. Communication Sciences and Disorders ’21

“UF OTD loves Mariel” reads a banner outside the College of Public Health and Health Professions on a brisk February afternoon. Second-year Doctor of Occupational Therapy students line the HPNP courtyard in celebration of the life of a fellow Gator, Mariel White, who generously pledged her equipment to the department of occupational therapy and larger UF community before she passed away in December.

White’s parents, Jill and Scott Olney, delivered the equipment, which will also benefit individuals with disabilities at the UF Disability Resource Center and RecSports, on behalf of their daughter.

The donation resulted from the close friendship between White and her Phi Mu sorority sister, second-year OTD student Kelly Dillon.

“It was bittersweet seeing those pieces of Mariel, those extensions of her, being unloaded from a car,” Dillon said. “I don’t think it had hit me yet that she was really gone. I was just trying to think in the future all the people the equipment is going to help and the students who are going to learn from it. Mariel was truly the biggest Gator fan I have ever known, and I know how much she would love this.”

Mariel White

Mariel White with her service dog, Lassie.

White wrote about her journey in a blog titled “She Persisted.” Following a rare vascular disease diagnosis, multiple strokes and becoming paralyzed from the waist down, White paused her studies to pursue a courageous rehabilitation journey, returning to campus and completing a degree in sports management from the UF College of Health and Human Performance. An avid Gator sports fan, White grew up attending football games and UF athletic events, and as a student, wrote for UF gymnastics, worked for the Atlanta Braves and reported for ESPN Gainesville. This past December, she passed away at home surrounded by loved ones. Her love for the Gators and radiant spirit can be seen in the remarkable legacy she leaves behind.

Her donation included a wheelchair, power drive and watch to control power drive, hand weights and bands for working out, transfer boards, reachers, a Lifescribe pen and notebooks, portable wheelchair ramps, and an off-road wheelchair for outdoor access.

“This donation benefited so many people,” said Rebecca Piazza, O.T.D., OTR/L, a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy. “It’s such a gift for our department to be able to demonstrate to Mariel’s family that she’s important, she will continue to be important, and she’s making a difference not just to our department, but to all these future clinicians who get to learn and benefit because of her life.”

The outdoor wheelchair will be added to the RecSports equipment fleet. The Lifescribe pen and notebooks — educational tools to help with notetaking — will benefit students who are on a waiting list for this equipment through the Disability Resource Center.

The transfer boards, wheelchair, reachers and other equipment will be incorporated into the OTD curriculum to support student learning and enhance clinical preparedness, competency and compassion.

“For Mariel, she just wanted these things to help other people, and to help make their lives better. She persisted; she didn’t give up. She was always working to make things better for herself and those around her,” said Jill Olney.

Olney expressed her surprise at seeing all the second-year OTD students when dropping off the equipment.

“Our car was loaded down, and I just thought we were meeting Kelly and a couple of students who were going to bring the equipment inside,” she said. “My husband was driving, and I was looking at my phone to see where we need to turn, and I look up and see all these students with signs that said, ‘We love you Mariel’ and it was just so touching. For the OTD students to celebrate the gift, that was a gift for us too.”