The youngest of six children and the daughter of Boise’s YMCA director, LeAnn Dolly-Powell was raised to believe she had a responsibility to the greater good.
“I just want to leave the world a better place,” she explained on a recent morning.
Dolly-Powell is the Project Unify director for Special Olympics Montana – meaning she organizes projects in schools across Montana that utilize inclusive activities and leadership activities to break down barriers that exist between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.
Montana schools can participate in three separate components of Project Unify: Inclusive Sports, Youth Leadership and Advocacy/Whole School Engagement.
In the Inclusive Sports program, Dolly-Powell works to rectify prejudicial attitudes by pairing students to play sports together. An athlete who may have disabilities is teamed up with a player without a disability. Together they form a bond on and off the field that works to create attitudes of acceptance and understanding which then permeate the school.
And it’s as easy as putting “a Frisbee in a kid’s hand and say ‘here, play,’ ” she said.
Playing sports together builds confidence, friendship and breaks down those barriers, she said. Further, it provides people an opportunity to ask and answer questions.
It’s obvious that it’s a fun and fulfilling job: Dolly-Powell beams as she speaks about two high-school students who are involved in Inclusive Sports. The student/athlete pair Jon Wilson and Chris Claire are members of Business Professionals of America, a student business organization, and were to give a talk at a student conference in Billings. Claire got up in front of the crowd and spoke about his friendship with Wilson.
“Now we all just know that we are all not that different,” Claire said.
Dolly-Powell lost it. Tears were streaming down her face while she cheered on Claire and Wilson. It was the message she has been driving home since she started working with Special Olympics years ago.
“That’s pretty powerful,” she said. “We can all learn from everyone.”
It’s events like that that make her nonprofit job incredibly rewarding.
“For me, I like the life-changing moments that happen on a regular basis,” she said.
She said students learn a lot from each other and she learns a lot from her students.
Students with disabilities have a “why not” attitude that enables to take risks and embark on adventures that other people may be more hesitant to try. That attitude seeps into her own life.
Dolly-Powell was an avid soccer player in her youth. Just recently, she decided to start running again and now she runs marathons on a fairly regular basis. It was Special Olympics’ athletes who inspired her to get moving.
“I wouldn’t have taken that step if I hadn’t seen them take that step over and over,” she said.
Though her job takes her all over the state and back again, she spends a significant chunk of her work week in her mobile office collecting data and writing grants. Then there’s increasing social awareness through social media, like Tumbler, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Dolly-Powell gets a lot of help from high-school students involved with Special Olympics and Project Unify.
But for the majority of her job, Dolly-Powell finds herself with students and teachers in schools, developing programs to make those schools better places for all students to be.
It’s a high-energy job and it tires Dolly-Powell out, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.