Special Olympics Athlete Steps into Leadership Role: in Community, at Work and in Movement

Tyler Leech on the green playing golf with another player.

There he is, alone, with mother nature. Unlacing his shoes and removing his socks, he walks barefoot on the Iowa soil. Depending on the day, a shadow might reflect off the cool grass. The crisp sharpness of the earth glides across his skin helping Tyler Leech disconnect from the world.

Over the years, he's learned that some people with autism enjoy walking barefoot because it makes them more aware of their surroundings. Walking barefoot releases positive energy helping calm you down.

He is visibly excited to talk about being the founder of the barefoot autism challenge—an initiative where you post a picture or video walking barefoot during the month of April because it's Autism Awareness Month.

It's a proud moment for Leech as he beams with a smile.

Selfie of Tyler Leech posing with a Barefoot Autism Challenge pin on his chest.
Tyler Leech posing with a Barefoot Autism Challenge pin on his chest.

But that moment would not have been possible without Leech first stepping into another environment entirely. Nearly 19 years ago, he walked on to a Special Olympics track & field team and everything changed. He participated in events like shot put and running.

"It all started when I was in third grade," Leech said about his first time competing with Special Olympics Iowa in 2001.

While competing, he would take steps to become a leader within the movement, completing Global Messenger training. Unsure of his success, he practiced public speaking and realized he was pretty talented at it, but was nervous about being in front of people. He says, "The way I overcame it was just acting as though you're talking to some friends. And over time, the crowds didn't seem to make me as nervous anymore."

For all of the athletic accomplishments, some of the biggest lessons he's learned through Special Olympics are ones that translate outside the game. He strongly believes that when you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything.

Tyler Leech standing next to a woman speaking into a microphone; both are behind a podium.
Tyler standing on stage giving a speech, as part of his athlete leadership training.

That belief helped him take important steps into a new area of life: attending college as well as securing an internship, and then a job, at Wells Fargo.

Good with numbers and being focused on academics, he took college-level courses during his senior year of high school. Leech then earned two college degrees from the local community college; an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts and an Associate of Applied Science in Administration Assistance.

But before he could take those long-awaited steps across the stage and accept his diploma, he needed an internship.

During the 2010 Gold Medal Gala fundraiser for Special Olympics Iowa, Leech stole the show while serving as co-emcee and impressed Chick Herbert, a Business Initiatives Senior Manager with Wells Fargo. The two would form an inseparable bond. With his personality and humor, Herbert knew Leech was special.

Leech asked Herbert if he could help arrange a job shadow at Wells Fargo to meet his class requirement at Des Moines Area Community College. Leech shadowed two separate departments within Retail Services.

It seemed like perfect timing when he heard about the internship program and applied as a Loan Documents Specialist, earning the position and stepping into a role that was just right for him.

"I got to do projects with other interns from other colleges," Leech said. "I even got to do a presentation about different generations in the workplace." But as the program came to an end and students moved on or went back to school, he wanted to stay on the team.

Wells Fargo valued his work ethic so much that they found a position as an Operations Processor and hired him on the spot.

Tyler Leech sitting at his desk, turning around and smiling for a photo.
Tyler posing for a picture at his desk working for Wells Fargo as an Operations Processor.

"My daily activities consist of updating merchants in our system that need to have different areas filled in," Leech said, as he explained what an operations processor is. "Because we update our system every now and again, I also pull credit reports for merchants that want to do business with us and see if their credit is in good standing. And I enter their data into our system and make sure it's accurate."

Leech has been working from home due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. His good sense of time management allows him to be productive at home. He credits most of his motivation to a passion for his job, saying, "It's a job that I like to do and I'm still here to support the team and keep the production afloat." He looks forward to going back into the office and being with his colleagues.

"Tyler [has] all these opportunities that he takes part in and I just think that really makes him a well-rounded person, especially as a Global Messenger. It just shows that he has leadership skills outside of Special Olympics. And that he takes that and uses what we trained him in Special Olympics to assist him in all areas of his life."
Wendy Olinger, the Director of Athlete Initiatives for Special Olympics Iowa

In addition to being an athlete leader in Special Olympics, Leech also serves on the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Iowa. His advocacy work isn't just limited to recruitment. Leech helped pass legislation for drivers on the autism spectrum that would label their status on their license. This helps police officers be aware of their condition and handle their interaction better.

Wells Fargo has recognized Leech's unique ability to inspire, bringing him on recruiting trips to colleges and universities.

"It was kind of like a recruiting trip to encourage other people who have autism to apply for jobs at Wells Fargo," Leech said about a trip to Mercyhurst University where he spoke to others about his job.

He's taken steps all his life—some big and some small—so it makes perfect sense for Leech to now be in a position to encourage other individuals to take important steps of their own towards education, employment and being integral members of their community.

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