Eden Prairie, MN
At first glance, one may say that I am a typical 23-year-old who has aspirations to change the world. My family was stable and had obtained the “American Dream.” Nothing was given to me on a silver platter, and I had to work hard for the outcomes that I wanted. What some people may not realize is that I have to work harder than most people in life. This is because I was born with Cerebral Palsy due to a brain trauma at birth. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy was a norm for me. I did not know what it was like not to have a non-progressive brain abnormality. Other’s low expectations of me were something that I had to confront on a daily basis. Whether it was the doctor’s conclusion that I would never walk, or my fourth grade teacher’s assumption that I was “too dumb” to understand, I never allowed them to restrict me. I was unbelievably determined to prove them wrong. I went from defining myself as an underdog to declaring myself as a champion.
By the time I entered high school, I was an active participant in Special Olympics. Through Special Olympics’ sports and leadership programs, I was able to find my voice, my confidence, and my passion. During my junior year of high school, I was invited to the 2009 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 that educates young people about the use of the word “retard(ed).” For the first time in my life, I saw a society that would no longer label people with disabilities, but see each person for who they are. This vision stuck with me when I entered my freshman year in college. As a freshman in college, I decided to host an “R-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. The following fall my classmate and I created a club and partnership with Special Olympics, focused on raising awareness for people with disabilities and promoting the social inclusion of people with disabilities. The original idea of the club was to promote this through events and an entire week devoted to disability awareness. However, we found greater potential for the club in promoting inclusion in a very direct way. The club introduced programs where college students were able to actively participate alongside their peers with disabilities through mentorship and sports. I had no idea the impact these programs would make and how it would feed 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 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?” 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 National Peace First Prize. It was soon after that DIFFERbilities Experience was born! DIFFERbilities Experience is a nonprofit providing friendship and inclusion-building opportunities to high school and college students both with and without disabilities in a controlled environment. With a focus on each individual’s differing abilities and interests in art, education, and sports, students foster communities of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Being a champion and fulfilling my dream of creating an inclusive society is something that I am still working towards. To fulfill this dream, not only have I founded an international advocacy campaign and my own nonprofit, but I have also managed to obtain a dual bachelor’s degree in theology and peace studies. Currently I am in the process of obtaining my judicial degree. This will allow me to be a more effective leader today, not tomorrow.
Running Start’s Impact
Imagine this, as a sophomore in high school you are used to phrases such as: “you can’t,” “you’re too dumb,” “you’re a waste of my time.” You have accepted that you won’t amount to anything much, and start to convince yourself that living with your parents the rest of your life wouldn’t be the worst thing. Then you become a junior in high school and all of those thoughts change. You get invited to a world youth summit and help found an international campaign. You become more optimistic about your future and find your passion to create social change.
One day, your principle approaches you and hands you information about Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Leadership Program. He tells you to apply, so you do. The expectation of you getting in is not high; after all, you have been told how competitive this program is. Then weeks later, the phone rings in algebra class and it’s your mom. She tells you that Running Start has selected you to be one of the young women to participants in their Young Women’s Political Leadership Program. How would you feel? Would you feel empowered? Or maybe you feel as though someone believes in you?
The above scenario was exactly what I went through during high school. My sophomore year, I felt as though my potential was limited. Then, everything changed during my junior year. I proved, not only to myself, but to others what I was capable of. When I received that phone call and learned that Running Start had selected me among hundreds of applicants to be one of 50 to participate in YWPL, I felt empowered! Running Start gave me the gift of seeing my potential and believing in what I could achieve. Running Start also taught me many skills that I use today such as: how to network, how to properly present and sell myself to stakeholders, and inspiration to make the world a more just place for all. I continue to use all of these skills in all of my leadership roles, whether it is approaching a new donor or soliciting political support for social inclusion. I credit this success to Running Start. They not only taught me fundamental skills that allow me to be an effective leader, but more importantly they gave me the inspiration and fire to build upon my passion of creating social inclusion for people with and without disabilities. Without the skills and inspiration that Running Start has bestowed upon me, I would not be a social entrepreneur, or following another dream of mine to go to law school. Here’s to you, Running Start. Thank you.
Connect with Danielle!
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