by Beth Dixon

For over 20 years Brianna Dillon’s presence was felt, and continues to be felt, in systems and organizations throughout NH. When Brie was 3 years old her parents, Leadership graduates Ann and Bill, developed a vision of a full life and real community participation for Brie. They felt that Brie should live an ordinary life even though it sometimes seemed like the circumstances and barriers were extraordinary. From being included in the Exeter schools and then at UNH, her stories of successful inclusion inspired everyone who heard them. Brie may not be with us any longer but her 25 years of influence live on. Her smile and her patience made everyone who knew her work a little bit harder and taught us all to listen more carefully.  

It is in her honor that the Brianna Dillon Leadership Medal is annually presented to an individual who has shown creative leadership in and commitment to the full participation of all people in the education, political, and cultural life of New Hampshire.

For the extraordinary craftsmanship and detail of the medal, we have MJ Harrington Jewelers in Newport to thank.  David Lantz is the owner and has donated for the past 5 years the custom designed medal. It just so happens that LuAnn and Megan Lantz, a great mother and daughter team, are Leadership grads. We are very grateful to the Lantz family and MJ Harrington’s continued contributions to Leadership.

This year the medal went to Bonnie Dunham.

(R-L) Skip, Sean, and Bonnie Dunham
(R-L) Skip, Sean, and Bonnie Dunham

Bonnie Dunham has been tireless in her efforts to be sure her son Sean is included fully in all of life’s adventures. Her creativity for ways to make things work for Sean and everyone involved and to do it with good humor is unsurpassed. BUT… her job has certainly not stopped there.

Bonnie has worked at the Parent Information Center in Concord for 25+ years and has educated and advocated with/for families statewide. She has organized, taught, and/or presented at the Volunteer Advocacy course in order that families know the Special Education laws and the rights that are embedded in them. She comes to Leadership every year to teach the Special Education Process to our participants – and we are very grateful for the detailed knowledge she has in this arena.

On a personal note, when my son was in high school I called her and asked to meet for lunch so she could help me figure out how to make my son’s IEP the best it could be. Engrossed in specifics she suddenly said “Don’t forget the Hit by a Bus Rule! I must have just stared at her not knowing what she meant – was this a real rule?  She laughed and told me to be sure everything I wanted was written very clearly and anyone could understand it – so that if I got hit by a bus nothing would change for Andrew. I think about the Hit by a Bus Rule whenever I’m planning anything that might need clarification. Thanks Bonnie!

Bonnie was active in the passage of the early Family Support legislation in 1989. She has served on the Family Support Conference Committee for at least the last 20 years.  She has served on the School Advisory Committee (SAC) at the Department of Education, on the Governor's Commission on Disability, and is a member of the IOD’s Consumer Advisory Board, to name just a few organizations she contributes her skills and talents to. 

Bonnie reads the hundreds of pages of proposed Special Education Rules every time they are up for reauthorization. She analyzes what the changes mean to the rights of school-aged children. Bonnie gets the word out for hearings and organizes people to testify so that our NH rules continue to be better than the Federal standards – she is ever vigilant.

Bonnie spends much of her time presenting at conferences, schools, area agencies, etc. on the benefits of inclusion and telling her favorite stories of Sean’s education and transition to give wonderfully creative and fun examples of his work, travel, and home life. Sean’s life stories are an example of how great the number of possibilities can be for anyone –these stories give hope and sometimes a good laugh to parents and family members .

How far do we go as parents who want to be sure our kids have regular opportunities? Every Friday night this family goes to a local restaurant/bar. This is the most important event of the week for Sean. He is a regular and his “beer” is poured into his glass and is waiting as Bonnie and her husband Skip slide quietly into a booth at the back of the room. The bartender greets Sean and helps him hang up his coat. Sean sits at the bar and visits with the locals and the bartender.  Newcomers are introduced to Sean and Karaoke begins later. All of Sean’s bar mates and the bartender know he is waiting for one song – everyone knows which song he will be singing. He gets lots of applause afterwards and takes his bow. The family has been told many times that Sean is the reason they come to this bar – “He’s fun! When he’s not here it’s boring.”

This list of accomplishments could go on and on but you get the gist – Bonnie Dunham continues to make a huge impact in the lives of thousands of NH families. We, at the NH Leadership Series, are very happy to present the Brianna Dillon Leadership Medal to Bonnie Dunham.