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Hi-Line Living: Volunteer of the Year

Dedication, compassion, win Hansen a state award


November 18, 2016

Mandy Hansen didn't have plans to work with Special Olympic athletes. Her volunteer position as the Local Program Coordinator of the Great Northern Area Special Olympics region started when she was asked to temporarily fill in for a friend who needed to take maternity leave.

About nine years later, on Nov. 4, Hansen won a Distinguished Service Award for her volunteer work with Special Olympic athletes.

"I'll be honest. I had no idea there's a volunteer of the year award," Hansen said. "I do it because I want to do it, not because I want to get recognition for it."

Allie Stockburger of Montana Special Olympics, who with Jamie Wood presented Hansen with the award in the Highland Park Early Primary School gymnasium, said Hansen won the annual statewide award because of her compassion and dedication for Special Olympics.

"Her contribution just goes so far, so wide," Stockburger said. "She's a much deserving individual."

Hansen is a first-grade teacher at Highland Park. She was working on her bachelor's degree in science education at Montana State University-Northern when former volunteer and Havre Public Schools special education teacher Shaylee Lewis asked her to help out with Special Olympics. Hansen said she was hesitant at first.

"I was scared because I didn't have any experience," Hansen said. "And Shaylee goes, 'Oh, Mandy, I see you around kids - you're going to do great.' She had more confidence in me than I did. And I said OK."

Hansen strung sentence after sentence in upbeat fashion, hardly ever pausing, almost never without a smile on her face.

She said she considers the Special Olympics athletes her family, and it's been that way since the beginning.

  "Right away I felt accepted," she said. "'I like this. I want more of this. I wanna learn from them.'"

Hansen said she thinks the English language is sometimes insufficient for expressing how she feels about her Special Olympics family members.

"I wish there was another word for love that was deeper, because I'd seriously use it with my Special Olympics family," she said.

The relationship between Hansen and her athletes isn't a one-way street, she added.

"My athletes teach me, they teach me," she said. "'Don't worry about things, Mandy - Ah, don't worry about it.'"

She said she has learned to take each day at a time, be proud of herself and not beat herself up.

Hansen said she didn't know about the award until the time she received it.

"There was an assembly, regular assembly, nothing out of sync. I went in there, and all of a sudden I saw Allie from Special Olympics come out of there. And then I saw the other girls behind her, and I'm like - I'm looking - and I panicked. 'Did I forget to advertise something, or was there something I was supposed to do?' And the next thing I know is Allie is giving me this award. And I can't remember what she said because I was in awe, and I started crying. I just got emotional," she said.

Hansen said her tears alarmed the kindergartners and first-graders in the gym and she had to reassure them she was crying "tears of joy, tears of joy."

She said she used the award as an opportunity to tell her first-graders about volunteering.

"My kids were like, 'What's a volunteer?' I brought it over into the classroom and taught it and some of my kids were like, 'Can we do that?'" she said. "And I love sparking a spark in little children. It sparks me as an educator. 'Can we volunteer time at that animal shelter? Can we volunteer time at the old people's home?'"

Hansen said she doesn't see herself as the sole owner of the award.

"I'm so proud of that award, but at the same time, when I look at that award, I think of all the other people that I have on my team," she said.

Hansen listed the Great Northern Area Special Olympics volunteer workers, as well as the athletes themselves, as the people she thinks of when she looks at the award.

Just as she never made plans to become a "mouth" for the Special Olympics, Hansen said, she also doesn't make definite plans too far into the future.

"Who knows if I'll even be alive five years from now," she said, laughing.

She said too many factors, uncontrollable or otherwise, can come up to think about where she'll be in a few years - "Life can change in an instant, so I wanna enjoy the moment," she said.

She said her faith makes it easy to go with the flow.

"I'm just going to go where God takes my path. I feel God puts me where he wants me," she said. "My day job - this is where I'm supposed to be. ... But I feel this is where God has me right now."

One thing she knows for sure, she said, is that she wants to grow in the volunteer realm. Lately, a blue heeler-Labrador mix the Hansens rescued is sparking some ideas.

"I have a puppy," she said. "And I've got this bug that I wanna put him through service training, so I can go out to the care center.

"He's just a mutt and we found him under a woodpile. He's brought so much happiness to us, and he's such a good pup - Scooby Doo. We've had him a year and half. You know, I want to put him to work. If I have friends that come over and they're hurt, he picks that up, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, he's like a human trapped in a dog's body.'

"So I'd like to go that direction, too, having a service dog, where I can go to the nursing home and just see those people light up because I get fed by that, you know," Hansen said. "Just seeing people happy is what I love."


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