CHI Friendship president strives to give people 'a life that they choose to live'

June 2024

Dori Leslie, right, chats with Secera Beciraj at the second annual Friendship Formal, an event for those CHI Friendship serves. Leslie has been president of the Fargo, North Dakota-based organization since 2017. CHI Friendship develops residential and vocational programs to assist people with developmental disabilities to live and function to the best of their ability in the community.



For Dori Leslie, president of CHI Friendship, success in serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities isn't always measured in major milestones. Often it's the little things that are cause for celebration.

When a person supported by CHI Friendship joins a bowling league, adopts a cat, clocks out at a new job without help, or chooses their own dining table — these are stories of growth, independence and budding passions that may seem ordinary to some, but to Leslie carry deep meaning and satisfaction.

The stories illustrate how Fargo, North Dakota-based CHI Friendship nurtures the abilities, talents and interests of each person it serves and helps them reach their goals and realize their dreams. And the stories demonstrate to the wider world that people with disabilities are just like everyone else.

"My passion is to make the people we support feel loved and cared for every day," Leslie said. "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of boundaries for acceptance of people who have a different kind of ability. We've come so far, but we have a long way to go. Yet, that's our fuel for our passion to continue."

"We really try to advocate and educate that people who have a disability are no different than anybody else. Because guess what? We all have different abilities. We all excel at some things and we all need more help at some things."
— Dori Leslie

In recognition of her leadership in championing those who are among society's most vulnerable, and for her unwavering advocacy for increased freedom and opportunities for people with disabilities, Leslie is the recipient of CHA's 2024 Sister Carol Keehan Award. CHA created the award in honor of the former CHA president and CEO, a longtime defender of social justice and health care access for all.

The award is given each year to someone who advocates for a more equitable and compassionate health system, exhibits a commitment to social justice, defends society's most poor and vulnerable, demonstrates the ability to shape public opinion, is steadfast in the face of adversity, and works to further the common good.

"Dori has the deepest servant leadership heart of any not-for-profit leader that I have seen," said North Dakota state Sen. Kathy Hogan, who is chair of the CHI Friendship board. "I've worked in human leadership for almost 50 years. Dori exemplifies servant leadership. She always remembers that the primary purpose is to ensure that the people who are supported are valued as human beings."

Christ in the face of all people
Leslie, who earned a bachelor's degree in physical and special education and a master's in leadership from the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, started working with vulnerable populations while still in college. She fell in love with the industry and the people she served. After graduation, she joined CHI Friendship, now part of CommonSpirit Health, as a direct support professional — the person who helps individuals served with their day-to-day activities. Over the next two decades, she took on numerous roles within the organization. CHI Friendship named her president in 2017.

CHI Friendship serves 275 people through residential and vocational programs and employs about 400. Through Leslie's leadership, it has become an industry leader, embracing new ideas, promoting community-integrated employment, and advocating for all people to regain and maintain their legal rights. Leslie has worked with local, state and national leaders to make sure that people with disabilities are not marginalized and that the standards set for the lives they lead are the same standards she and her colleagues have for themselves.

"We help people have a life that they choose to live, a life that is filled with their decisions, if they want to go to church, if they want to go shopping, if they want to go to a park and just hang out," Leslie said. "We help them have a life of purpose and a life of meaning."

Dori Leslie greets Jay Sorum, a CHI Friendship board member, at the organization's 50th anniversary gala. Sorum is among the many people supported by CHI Friendship. Under Leslie's leadership, the organization embraces new ideas, promotes community-integrated employment and advocates for legal rights for everyone.



Her conviction that Christ is in the face of each person she meets is at the core of everything she does. "To me, serving others is the right thing to do," she said. "It's who I am as a person. Helping others is part of my personal spirituality, and it brings me life."

Retired CHI Friendship CEO Jeff Pederson worked with Leslie for 20 years and saw her living out her values every day.

"People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are oftentimes seen as the least of my brethren," he said. "Dori has been a champion for their right to participate in all aspects of their lives and for them to be seen and accepted as part of society. She is a wonderful role model."

Challenging norms
Recently, Leslie led an initiative to take a closer look at the restrictions affecting people served, whether those people live in one of CHI Friendship's seven group homes or receive other services. Her goal was to remove as many restrictions as possible to encourage those served to take charge of their own care and their own lives.

She started with a role-playing exercise with staff members that was designed to create feelings of discomfort. Afterward, she said, there was "a newfound empathy involving rights restrictions and people were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work" removing those barriers.

Rights restrictions are meant to ensure safety for people with disabilities and are agreed upon by the person's guardian and reviewed annually. But Leslie believed many were unnecessary, overreaching or outdated. Working with case managers and others, she set out to challenge the norm. So far, more than 300 rights restrictions have been removed from those CHI Friendship serves. Leslie said this has increased self-esteem, empowerment and independence.

"In the field of developmental disabilities, it is quite often the norm to have people with a disability not have the same rights as every other American citizen," Leslie said. "We have given people their rights back regarding voting, where they go to eat or what they eat, or how much pop they can have a day, or the right to marry, or the right to who they live with.

"It's not the popular thing to do, but it's the right thing to do," she said. "It's hard, but hard things yield great results. And by making sure that we give every person that we serve the ability to live a life, just like you and I want to, we're making change happen."

Leslie cited the example of a resident who did not like living in a traditional group home and wanted his own apartment in the community.

"He sat right at the end of my desk and said, 'I'm moving, please help me. I don't want to live with anybody else,'" she recalled. "We all wrapped our arms around him and said, 'You're right. You're in charge.' Today, he's successfully living in his own apartment, happy, makes his own decisions, and we're there to support him when he needs us to."

A pioneer
Leslie said CHI Friendship has long been a trailblazer in the industry and she is dedicated to continuing that leadership.

"People often call us pioneers who try new things, who are bold and not afraid to make a difference," she said. "I have seen, over my past 26 years, a paradigm shift within our services. Twenty-plus years ago, people were all living in group homes, large institutions. And Friendship was one of the North Dakota facilities that said, 'What if people lived in their own apartments by themselves? Yes, let's make it happen.'"

Today, CHI Friendship supports 41 individuals in its group homes and provides services to 71 others who rent apartments across the community.

Similarly, CHI Friendship is an industry leader in ensuring that people who want to work can work. The organization has 150 people in its vocational program. Leslie is committed to making connections in the community that might lead to new employment opportunities for those served.

She also works to educate others about the value of an inclusive community. The more ways in which CHI Friendship and the people it serves are involved in the community — through employment and volunteer opportunities, through churches and schools, and even media appearances — the healthier the community is, in her view. During her tenure, CHI Friendship has increased community outreach activities that help shape public opinion and illustrate that people are all more alike than different.

"It is important to me personally, but also our industry, to continue to educate others that people who have all kinds of abilities are included in all aspects of life," she said. "We really try to advocate and educate that people who have a disability are no different than anybody else. Because guess what? We all have different abilities. We all excel at some things and we all need more help at some things."

A culture of respect
Staff members and colleagues say Leslie nurtures a culture of respect, compassion and camaraderie that makes Friendship a great place to work. David Jones, regional market president for CommonSpirit Health, sees it in action.

"When she talks about the people she works with, whether the employees or the communities she serves, she really does get excited," Jones said. "Her eyes light up. She definitely lives what she is getting honored for. Dori ties everything back to the mission. It makes her a very consistent and honest leader."


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