From Doctor to Nonprofit Leader

Danielle Liebl, a former Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee Member from Minnesota, recently established her own non-profit – DIFFERbilities Experience. An extraordinary individual, Danielle has dedicated her life to make a difference for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

The following blog post was written by Danielle for the DIFFERbilities Experience Blog and shared here with permission..

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At the age of six years old, I can recall my mom and dad asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always responded, “An orthopedic surgeon at Gillette.” You may be wondering how on earth does a six year old know what an orthopedic surgeon is? When you have cerebral palsy, not only do you see a lot of doctors, you also become very familiar with their titles. At the age of six, my primary doctor was an orthopedic surgeon and I thought he was the coolest! This dream of being an orthopedic surgeon lasted until sophomore year in high school, when biology class was required and I found out it is not my cup of tea. I believe my parents let out a huge sigh of relief when they realized there would be no lawsuits in the future. They always feared that I would have a spasm and accidentally put someone’s femur bone in their rib cage.

Although I realized that a career as a surgeon may not be for me, I still knew I wanted to help people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. I decided instead of forcing myself to like biology, I should focus on something I was passionate. In high school I was very involved in Special Olympics. Through this tremendous organization, I was able to find my voice, my confidence and my passion. No longer was I the girl with cerebral palsy, instead, I was a respected human being. In February 2009, I was invited to the Special Olympics World Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. There I was able to be a part of a group of leaders with and without disabilities to form the campaign, “Spread The Word To End The Word.” This campaign educates young people about the misuse of the word “retard(ed).” For the first time in my life a saw a future of a better society , a society that doesn’t label ability or the lack thereof. This vision of the future stuck with me when I entered my freshman year at the College of Saint Benedict.

During my first year of college, I decided to host a Spread The Word To End The Word Campaign at my college. Once the campaign took off, students started noticing the campaign and the goal of social equality it was trying to achieve. One student took a particular interest and emailed me to see what he could do to help. The following fall my classmate and I created a club that was affiliated with Special Olympics Minnesota. The purpose of the club was to raise awareness for people with disabilities, promote the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and to educate students and faculty on campus about better ways to treat, interact, and build relationships with people with disabilities. The original idea of the club was to promote this purpose through events and campaigns such as the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign, and disabilities week. However, we found greater potential of the club, promoting inclusion in a very direct way. The club introduced programs in which students could experience inclusion first hand; programs such as: Greatest Friends and Special Olympics Minnesota Unified Sports.

I had no idea the impact this would make, and how it fed into my vision of creating an inclusive society. Towards the end of my junior year in college, a mentor of mine nominated me for the Peace First Prize. The Peace First Prize is a two year fellowship and grant awarded to young peacemakers who demonstrate compassion, courage and collaborative change. During the six month interview process, I was asked the question, “What do you see as the future of the club you started at your college?” To my surprise I answered, “Growing it into a nonprofit.” In the fall of my senior year, it was announced that I was one of ten recipients of the inaugural Peace First Prize. Shortly after, it was decided that during my fellowship, I would focus on growing the club a started at St. Ben’s into a nonprofit. It was soon after DIFFERbilities Experience was born.

It has been a wild ride to where I ended up. The professions of a doctor and a nonprofit leader are on the complete opposites of the spectrum. Do I regret not being an orthopedic surgeon? On one hand it would be an awesome profession, but then I run the risk of having to take biology again and getting sued for malpractice. On the other hand, I would never have gotten to take this wonderful journey of founding DIFFERbilities Experience. DIFFERbilities Experience has helped me grow as a leader, a person, and has taught me many valuable lessons. I truly hope that DIFFERbilities Experience can impact lives like it has mine. I would not trade this journey for anything, and I look forward to taking the next journey with you.

Together, we will create a world where inclusion is the norm!

 

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I am a Change Agent

Olivia Jones, a Special Olympics Wisconsin Youth Activation Committee member shares a great reflection on how Project UNIFY has impacted her. Without further a due, here is Olivia’s Reflection.

I didn’t know I had the power to influence the mindset of hundreds of people until Project UNIFY® came to influence my own. It was my freshman year when my social studies teacher first introduced my classmates and I to the idea of joining hands and becoming a Project UNIFY school in order to improve the school climate.

Our community was located in a small town, just outside of Madison. The vast majority of people residing there were middle class, white families; most of whose lives revolved around the sports their children were involved in rather than raising tolerance and promoting acceptance. It wasn’t hard to see that our community wasn’t exactly encouraging the proactive UNIFY point of view.

Still, my teacher pushed harder and harder for her students to jump on the Project UNIFY bandwagon, and I began to consider it. When myself and a few other students finally surrendered to her pleas and joined the movement, we realized just how little our fellow peers and even ourselves knew about the true definition of unity.

Before this club, I hadn’t had relationships with students with intellectual disabilities. I’d never known about their weekend plans, or the hobbies we shared. I found I didn’t know anything about these kids that I passed in the hallway every day.

Without Project UNIFY I might’ve never learned that my friend Aaron could draw just about any Disney character you could name, or that my friend Dylan knew the batting stats on every single Brewer’s player. Because of Project UNIFY I discovered things not only about others, but about myself too. I learned that I had the tenacity to overcome the challenges I faced. I could impact a school of students who dropped the R word just as many times as they texted the letters O M G in the middle of class. Because of Project UNIFY my peers began to think before they spoke, they began to look at disabilities with a different attitude, they began gain knowledge on differences, all the while losing the ignorance they once so greatly possessed.

It’s because of Project UNIFY that I have a place in my high school where I’m always greeted with warm hugs and smiles no matter how bad my hair looks that day, or how many math problems I failed to solve. To me, Project UNIFY has acted as the gift that continues to give. From this start-up club I can now say I’ve taken the Polar Plunge, not once, but twice. I have recently just completed my first year on the Youth Activation Committee, and have formed bonds with other students like myself who are both passionate and positive about the cause they are advocating for. Even more so, I have been presented with numerous volunteer opportunities.

On top of all of those things, I am now closing on my first internship with Special Olympics Wisconsin. Over this past summer at Headquarters, I’ve gained independence, self-worth, and other skills to last me a lifetime. Each of those achievements date back to my freshman year when I was first approached about a little known organization with tremendous possibilities. Project UNIFY has moved mountains within me, and has forced me to consider myself as change agent in the world. This organization has touched kids across the nation; it’s changed lives. Through Project UNIFY I have seen a picture of society that generations to come can be happy to live in.DSC07301