I see Leann Boerema just about every weekday at the Food Bank of Lincoln. She works in our Child Hunger building, teaching VOICE students about life and math while overseeing their work packing bags of food and hope for LPS students in need.
VOICE stands for Vocational Opportunity in Community Experience, and it’s because of this work that Boerema is a superhero in my book. She can’t fly, but she helps others soar. Whether it’s students with challenges or Lincoln North Star field-and-track stars (not a mistake; we will get to that soon), it’s where she finds her joy.
She flashes a humble smile when talking about those VOICE stars she has coached for the last 10 years – first at Bryan Health and now at the Food Bank. It lights her up because … I will let her tell you.
“Watching kids who people think can’t do anything, or are maybe not accepted in society or even in some families, to watch them succeed and achieve independence,” she says. “To be great. To see them smile. To see them count for the first time.”
To be great.
Like their teacher and coach.
Boerema is in the Clinton (Iowa) High School Hall of fame, and she is one of the all-time greats in Husker field and track.
“It is field and track,” she says with a bigger smile. “It’s always field and track.”
And not just alphabetically. Boerema notes it’s the throwers and the other field athletes who usually set the tone for a meet.
“They get everybody going.”
With her shot-put heroics, Boerema helped the Huskers take several Big 12 titles in the early 2000s. She is still high on the NU charts, both indoor and outdoor (about 54 feet in both cases) with a bunch of individual titles. She was elected team captain three times.
And despite serious elbow and back trouble, she made it to the finals of the U.S. Olympic trials twice (2000 and 2004). The 2004 Olympic trials marked the last time she wore a Husker jersey.
“You don’t want to take it off,” she says. “You want to sleep in it forever.”
The individual accolades were nice, she says, but the team element has always been her favorite part of competition.
“The biggest thing I’m proud of is just being part of all the team championships we won. It wasn’t something you did by yourself,” she says. “We were a very close-knit family, where we were all working toward a common goal. That was always fun.”
And now a lot of that fun comes from being part of the team at North Star. She loves it there, as a teacher and throws coach. She also coaches Unified Bowling, which blends special-needs students with other students.
“I love the purpose of the program,” she says. “They compete for a state title, wear a school uniform and can earn a varsity letter.”
She has the same love for the VOICE students.
“She always makes sure the students understand the importance of the work they do here,” says Alynn Sampson, the Food Bank’s director of youth and family programs. “She is a great role model to the students as she exhibits compassion, patience and willingness to do whatever task needs to be done every day. Hearing the students laugh and joke around while getting their work done is something that never gets old.”
One thing that Boerema does not joke about is parents and coaches who think their young athletes should just focus on one sport. Boerema was a four-sport star (yes, four) at Clinton High. Because softball was played during the summer, she could still participate in volleyball, basketball and track … excuse me, I meant field.
“I am not the athlete I was coming into college if I wasn’t a four-sport athlete,” she says. “You become a better athlete and a better person and a better student by being a multi-sport athlete, because you have to manage so much of your time in life and make better choices.”
She is not a big fan of snow and cold either. She can’t wait for another spring to arrive.
“I love being outside, just not when it’s 17 below zero,” she says.
And the funny thing is, she could have gone somewhere warmer. Mississippi State offered Boerema a job as head throws coach in 2007.
No thanks. She has plenty to keep her warm in Lincoln.
“Just watching all the kids succeed, watching them grow, watching them accomplish their goals and overachieve.”
Watch ‘em throw and watch ‘em grow. Regardless of your circumstance, it’s remarkable what you can do with the right coach.
About the LPS VOICE program
The mission of the Lincoln Public Schools Vocational Opportunity in Community Experience (VOICE) program is to prepare students with disabilities, primarily ages 18 to 21, to gain the skills and connections they need to facilitate a positive transition into adult living.
The VOICE program, part of the LPS Special Education Department, started more than 25 years ago and currently serves about 110 students. The program’s goal is for students to learn about independence, career development, developing self and academics.