When Denise Dollar’s three-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes—and later recognized as being on the autism spectrum—she did as many other mothers of children with special needs do: She went into survival mode. Every waking moment became an opportunity to focus her attention on getting her son the help he needed and helping her family unit continue to work.  

“I felt isolated,” says Denise. “I wasn’t working. I let my health slip away. I gained weight. My whole life path had changed. And at that time, I didn’t realize it was exactly the path I was supposed to be on.”

Denise had become so comfortable being uncomfortable in her own skin, it took her a while before she finally realized: For all she was giving her family, the one thing she wasn’t giving them was the best version of herself. That making her own health a priority was actually the best gift she could give her family.

So she started running, and for years looked for ways to connect with other moms who were going through a similar situation, all so she could communicate to them the important lesson she had learned. Her mantra became, How can I help? How can I help?

Little did she know the answer would come to her one night while washing dishes: “Running shoes,” says Denise. “The words just popped into my head.”

And within 24 hours, she had come up with the name Heart Strides, which initially was intended only as a quick-hitting Facebook project that would raise money for running shoes she would donate to mothers of children who are critically ill or have special needs. That was July 2014, and by October of that same year, she’d turned her “project” into a full-fledged non-profit organization.

“Through it all,” says Denise, “it has been very important to me to stay true to my mission, knowing that big things can result from small actions.”

That last part was something instilled in her as a student at Mount Mary University. She was an interdisciplinary major, taking classes from multiple programs that advanced her personal mission.

“Mount Mary really helped me understand the notion that I must trust the path that lies ahead. It taught me to believe in the gifts I have. And it taught me that helping just one individual is every bit as impactful as helping one hundred.”

Today, Heart Strides continues to grow­—in both awareness and impact—donating running shoes to moms countrywide. Through it all, Denise remains humble, attributing the courage and insight it took to stay on this path to the boldness and curiosity she took with her upon graduating from Mount Mary.

“Mount Mary was very much the heart of every step that led me here,” says Denise.

Here’s to the bold.