Her presentation on Thursday is meant to inspire her audience to reach for their goals in spite of life’s circumstances.
It is a subject quite familiar to Olson.
Born in 1974 without legs and arms, also known as total amelia, Olson was abandoned by her parents in India. She was brought to a hospital where the doctors’ consensus was to euthanize her. In the midst of Hindu doctors, a lone Christian doctor adamantly reminded his peers the practice was illegal in India.
The good doctor then traveled a reported 37 hours to bring Olson to The Ramabai Mukti Mission. It was there she received the name “Manyata,” which means “acceptance” in the Marathi language.
American missionary Maria Olson, who served as the administrator of the Hope Town Christian School for the disabled in Carmel, adopted Olson when she was 5. Maria herself was almost 51 at the time. She brought her newfound daughter from India to raise her in America.
Olson, who referred to her late mother as the Mother Teresa of America, described Maria as being “such a woman of faith and courage.” Maria was Olson’s greatest champion, offering aid as she grew and encouragement through her educational and professional endeavors.
Today, Olson serves as the career services and quality manager at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. She graduated from Lee University in December 1996, graduated from Regent University in 1999, began working at the same university on Oct. 16, 2002 and established Manyata Ministries in May of 2013.
Needless to say, Olson has kept herself busy, but it seems she is still willing to make time for her alma mater. She will speak with students, faculty and the community on Thursday, at 10:30 in the Conn Center on Lee University’s campus.
When Olson decided to attend Lee University, she discovered a trove of advisers and supporters in the form of faculty, staff and peers.
The campus was not accessible to all students at the time Olson applied.
University President Dr. Paul Conn assured Olson strides would be taken to remedy the situation. He then presented Olson with her letter of acceptance from the school.
“He made a commitment to me in that meeting. He promised me that if I were patient with him, he would make the campus accessible, which he did,” Olson said. “He is definitely a man of his word and such a man of integrity and character — both he and Mrs. Conn.”
Conn met with Olson every semester to provide an update on which buildings would become accessible. By her sophomore year, Olson gained access to the student union, then located in the Centenary Room. She said past director of Student Services Bill Winters provided her with a place to hangout in lieu of the student union.
“He allowed me to go into the student services building anytime,” Olson said. “He actually shelved all of my favorite snacks. I had my own little private student center to go whenever I needed to get away from my dorm room and watch TV.”
Winters also spoke to Olson in a mixture of tough love and truth when she wanted to withdrawal her freshman year. He advised her she was smart enough to not only graduate, but graduate with honors. It turns out he was right.
Her adviser, Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, met with Olson every semester to plan her courses.
“She would come to my dorm room. I didn’t have a chair for her to sit on, so she would sit on my bed,” Olson recalled with a laugh. “I would give her a pillow to lean up against the wall on my bed.”
They mapped out Olson’s entire program. The first two years found all of Olson’s classes scheduled for the university library and the Dixon Center. Dirksen said she was impressed by Olson’s “courage” and “undaunted spirit.”
“It was my pleasure to be with her and help facilitate anything I could do for her. We live near Lee, and we actually built a ramp at our house so that she could come see us,” Dirksen said.
“I was inspired by her every day and was so happy to do anything I possibly could for her.”
According to Dirksen, Olson reacted to college life the same as her peers and was no more “dramatic or tearful” than anyone else in her graduating class.
Dirksen’s mentor relationship with Olson allowed her to witness the young student’s growth throughout college.
“She matured in her vision for what she could accomplish in the world, and she was great at incorporating what she learned in her classes into her vision for what she could become,” Dirsken said.
“Lisa was very adept at making her needs known in a way that was neither desperate or belligerent.
“She was very matter of fact about her situation, and had a very mature way of approaching all the adjustments she had to make during her college years.”
Faculty, administrators and peers like Conn, Dirksen, David Tilley, Winters, Alan McClung, Mark and Lorri Wickham, Vanessa Hammond Conn and friends in Alpha Gamma Chi made Olson’s undergraduate years at Lee University memorable.
Olson said Cameron Fisher made public relations look fun. It was one of the reasons she decided to pursue a masters degree with a public relations emphasis at Regent University in fall of 1997. Fisher was also behind getting Olson’s story out while she was still a student at Lee.
He recently said Olson demonstrated her ability to overcome tremendous odds while pursuing her undergraduate degree.
“She made many friends while she was [at Lee] and those friends lived her life right alongside her,” Fisher said. “Lisa’s story is so unique and people wanted to hear about it. She was never shy to share her struggles and triumphs together and thus she has been an inspiration to many.”
Although her mother, friends and mentors at Lee provided much joy, Olson has struggled with her own share of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. She said the Lord has helped her overcome much, including the negative feelings and adversity.
“That is what makes my story stronger — the fact God always has his hand on my life,” Olson said. “He is there for us, we just need to trust him. You know, he sees the bigger picture in our lives.”
It seems a child born in India with a disability her birth parents could not aid, abandoned, almost euthanized, thrice named, adopted by a missionary in another country and who has taken on a campus not fully accessible to her motorized wheelchair and every other life obstacle, might just be the one person to speak on the triumphs of life.