Lisa Olson stopped 15 minutes into her speech Thursday morning in Lee University’s Conn Center to inform her audience she has a fear of public speaking.
Prior to her confession, Olson grabbed the audience’s attention with her story.
Born without arms or legs, referred to as total amelia, Olson was abandoned by her Indian parents. The head of pediatrics at a nearby hospital suggested she be euthanized. One Christian doctor in a room full of Hindu doctors argued euthanasia was illegal in India.
Olson lived her first five years at the Ramabai Mukti Mission before she was adopted by Maria Olson, an American missionary and administrator of Hope Town Christian School for the disabled.
A loving family nurtured Olson as she grew into a determined, independent woman intent on achieving her dreams.
“There is one obstacle that is greater than all the other obstacles [of life] combined. Can you guess what the obstacle may be?” Olson asked the crowd. “Well, the obstacle is fear. If fear is left unchecked, it can rob you of the very dreams that were meant to give you life and joy.”
One of Olson’s first seemingly unattainable dreams was to attend Lee. The problem did not lie in her ability to navigate the course load. Rather, the college looked different than it does today. It was not accessible to all students.
Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn sat down with Olson. He promised if she was patient, the college would make the needed physical adjustments. She agreed and returned to the campus for her first semester in the fall of 1993.
Past director of student services Bill Winters was assigned to work with Olson to determine how best to make the campus accessible.
He said she impressed him from the beginning.
“You could see how she had been so successful,” Winters recalled. “Her smile filled up the room. She was so good at drawing you to her face, and not her limitations.”
Her smile and charisma touched Winters immediately. The two took to traveling through the campus to determine trouble areas. He described Olson as a “pioneer” for all students with physical disabilities who attended Lee after her time.
Director of Faculty Development Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, who was Olson’s adviser, said Olson was a challenge for Lee.
Added Dirksen, “But in the most positive way. She said I took her under my wings, but in most ways, it is quite the opposite.”
Olson aided in the development of a campus that welcomed students with disabilities.
“A lot of what I know about courage, resilience and gracious persistence, I learned from Lisa,” Dirksen said. “A lot of the things we have now were originally kind of inspired by Lisa.”
Olson joked with the students, faculty members and community guests as she worked through her speech. She gave a shout-out to Alpha Gamma Chi, recognized the faculty and staff and encouraged the audience to identify and pursue their dreams.
“Life is a process of discovering our inherent gifts,” Olson said. “As a disabled woman, I try to focus on my abilities instead of my disabilities.”
She graduated from Lee College in three years with honors. Later, she attended Regent University with her mother alongside her for the journey. She spent several years in post-graduate school unemployed as she looked for a job. According to Olson, her disability might have played a part in her inability to readily attain a job.
She now serves as the career services and quality manager in Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. She also established a nonprofit, Manyata Ministries, in May 2013. It requires a lot of motivational speaking — an act that scares Olson.
“In fact, I am petrified of public speaking,” Olson said. “My leg begins to shake. I perspire profusely.”
She hopes to reach out to individuals and groups who face challenges in their lives. According to a release by Manyata Ministries, Olson’s story is great for anyone who needs encouragement in such areas as overcoming adversity, depression or anxiety; pursuing dreams and goals; finding hope through Christ; adoption; finding true beauty; and caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease.
Olson has reached outside of her comfort zone to speak to students, civic clubs, churches and government bodies. She said she is hoping to bring her story to such places as nonprofit children’s organizations, disability groups, youth groups, families with a disabled loved one and injured war veterans.
She urged audience members to dream big with God.
“Remember that you were placed here on this earth for a significant purpose,” Olson said. “... Remember that you are a child of the King. You are the vessel that delivers God’s message of acceptance and love to the nations. May God surround you with his love and peace.”
More information can be found on Manyata Ministries and Lisa Olson by visiting www.manyataministries.org.