Dave Dorn has served as the President and CEO of Special Olympics Minnesota for nearly 20 years and his family has come along for the ride from the start. Through heartache and challenges, the Dorns’ story reveals a family committed to each other and the Special Olympics community.
“Before he was my dad he was my uncle,” said Roe Dorn, son of Dave Dorn, President of Special Olympics Minnesota. “He’s always been a great role model and such a great person to be around. When I see him speak at an event it makes me so proud and I feel like I can do that kind of stuff, too.”
Born in Peru with an intellectual disability, Roe was adopted as an infant by Dave’s sister-in-law, Ginny Kelley, in 1991. Ginny also adopted two other children from South America and raised them alongside Dave and Katie Dorn’s four children in Minnesota. Katie and Ginny were best friends and did everything together. They even started a marketing company during the busy years of raising young children.
Everything changed when Ginny was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. After eight years of treatments and a remission, Ginny died at 45 and the Dorn family took in her children: Roe (11 at the time), Lily (8) and Josie (5), adding to the Dorns’ four biological children who were all around the same age.
“It was a really pivotal moment in my life when my sister died,” recalled Katie. “She adopted three kids who had hard birth stories with lots of loss and trauma, so I went back to school and got a degree in counseling. Dave was an absolute saint for agreeing to it while we were so busy, but the training helped us so much as we faced many challenges.”
Ginny’s death was equally transformative for Dave. Having always worked in the corporate sector, suddenly Dave found himself questioning his career path and wanting something more in line with his new life.
Dave was introduced to adapted sports at Minnetonka High School where Roe participated in floor hockey and soccer. Adapted sports provide athletic opportunities for high school athletes with disabilities in the same way that they are provided for non-disabled athletes in schools. “I had never seen anything like it before, and I loved it so much that I wanted to coach,” said Dave.
Word spread about Dave’s interest in working with people with intellectual disabilities. “A friend told me that Special Olympics Minnesota was looking for a new president, and I got lucky. They didn’t typically hire outside of the organization at the time, but it worked out for me and it was a great move for our family. Everybody got involved,” said Dave.
Each of the nine family members found their own way to get involved with Special Olympics Minnesota. “It all felt right,” said Katie. “It felt like something bigger was happening. For Roe and everyone in our family.”
Kelley Dorn worked in the Special Olympics Minnesota office, Charlie was a Global Messenger and ran the Spring State Basketball Unified tournament, Lily was a Summer Games volunteer, Betsy started the Unified Club at Minnetonka High School, Janie participated in Unified golf with Roe and volunteered at Summer Games, Josie was a downhill skiing Unified partner with Roe for many years and at age 7, she was the first family member to take the plunge! In addition to those activities, all the kids helped at countless regional and state competitions, fundraising events and more.
Janie Dorn was the same age as Roe when they became siblings, and the two went through all four years of high school together. She remembers how unifying Special Olympics Minnesota was for the whole family. “It was such an important touchstone in our lives that helped us be involved in something bigger than ourselves. We felt really proud to be a part of it,” said Janie.
Seeing his children learn inclusion through exposure to a sibling with intellectual disabilities inspired Dave’s passion for the Unified Champion Schools program that was gaining traction at Special Olympics Minnesota around his eighth year at the organization.
“Before SOMN I had never been in a job more than 10 years at a time, but the advent of Unified Schools really intrigued me,” said Dave. “When I saw the program in action, I knew it was the future. It got me fired up to stay knowing there’s so much we can do.”
As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, Dave remembers how differently people with intellectual disabilities were treated in school. “They were totally isolated from the other students,” recalled Dave. “The Special Education class was tucked away in the corner room of the basement. They came on a separate bus and ate in a separate lunchroom. My interaction was very infrequent and uninformative as to what life was like for people with disabilities.” Eventually he had his first inclusive experience with a peer with an intellectual disability at a summer camp. A boy at the camp had Down syndrome, and throughout the week, Dave was surprised to strike up a connection with him. “I saw how he wanted to have fun like everybody else and be part of a group like everybody else. So instead of doing something for someone with a disability, I was doing stuff with someone with a disability. And that’s really what the movement of inclusion is all about still to this day.”
These childhood experiences informed Dave’s mission to grow Unified Champion Schools, and he had an equally passionate partner. Katie happened to have a job as a counselor at Orono High School after earning her master’s degree. “We need a school to do this, can you help me?” Dave remembers asking his wife.
Katie started the Orono High School Unified Club with another teacher who believed in the power of inclusion. The first sport offered was basketball, and Katie remembers it completely changing the culture of the school. “Suddenly parents who felt like they were on the outside because of the limited activities for their kids felt like they were on the inside. They were woven into the community, and it was a beautiful thing to see,” said Katie.
Dave hopes these cultural shifts in smaller communities will influence the inclusive nature of everyone in the state of Minnesota and beyond. “I think inclusion means accepting everybody without thinking about it,” said Dave. “I see how Special Olympics Minnesota programs create an environment for people to get over those hurdles of feeling uncomfortable with someone who is different from you. It’s a movement that shows how we should be with everyone, not just people with intellectual disabilities.”
Beyond Unified Champion Schools, Dave’s inclusive leadership will be on display during the 2026 USA Games, which he played a major role in securing Minnesota as the host state of the event. He hopes the Games inspire more people to get involved and participate as athletes, volunteers and coaches.
While Special Olympics Minnesota prepares for USA Games, Dave is careful to ensure that the infrastructure and investment is ready for the excitement that comes with hosting. “The Games will be phenomenal,” said Dave. “Everything’s going to be great, but the whole reason you bid on the Games is so everyone can see that it’s something they want to be a part of. We hope to harness this opportunity to grow and be ready to accept everyone who wants to be a part of our mission.”
With his 20th anniversary of leading Special Olympics Minnesota on the horizon, Dave is more than prepared to take on any challenges and growth the future brings. He has lifted the organization to new heights throughout his tenure, and his daughter Janie shared how his encouraging personality and talents in leadership impact more than his work.
“My dad has two grandkids with two more on the way, and his grandpa name is ‘Champ,’ which is just perfect for him. He’s always been the champion of everyone around him, especially the underdog,” said Janie. “To have someone who is a cheerleader and champion of you was a gift from day one. That’s why Special Olympics was the perfect fit for him because it’s just who he is, not just for his family, but for the community, too.”
And while Dave never got a chance to coach Roe in adapted hockey like he initially set out to do, Roe could not be prouder of the way his dad championed his life from the start. “I’m so appreciative that I’ve been a Special Olympics athlete for as long as my dad has been involved. I’ll put it on Facebook that I’m going to an event with my dad and people will respond and say, ‘Tell your dad hi from me!’ and that makes me so proud,” said Roe. “It makes me so proud to represent our family and Special Olympics as an athlete.”
Each member of the Dorn family is a champion of inclusion! We thank them for their dedication to the Inclusion Revolution, and we can’t wait to see all that they bring to our organization in the future.