When a bunch of 14-year-old hockey players were heard casually tossing around the “R” word earlier this year, Jordan Buckellew was just the one to address the situation.

“I am the person who will call out a stranger who uses the word, for better or worse,” she said about being asked to talk to the boys. “Having worked in the disability community, I greatly understood the impact of how the ‘R’ word is received.”

But there was no shaming involved in explaining to them why using “retarded” as an insult would be deeply hurtful to others. “These kids don’t really think outside their own experience,” Buckellew said. “I try to come from a positive place. I am very careful not to be rude, saying, ‘There are so many other words you can use.’ This had a huge impact on how they received the message.”

The 27-year-old, who owns her own photography business, has made it her business to champion people with disabilities and those who have been bullied — which has sometimes been personal.

“I was told to lay off the doughnuts,” Buckellew said of a comment on one of her Instagram posts. “So I bought six dozen doughnuts and did a photo shoot. I could have let it have power over me, but I decided to meet this with positivity.

“I like doughnuts! I’m not giving them up.”

An accidental advocate

Buckellew, an Iowa native, says she “stumbled into advocacy.” After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she worked in employment services and job coaching for people with disabilities, including for Make-A-Wish and ACR Homes, which provides accessible housing and services.

“I saw the best and worst of that system, and the advocate in me started to rear her head,” she said. “I was very disheartened about the lack of options and pay, and the inability of corporate America to help with job skills.

“I had people that were totally underemployed, brilliant in some areas but who ended up pushing carts.”

When she realized her dream to start her own business, Joy by Jo, in 2017, she asked herself how she could be part of the solution. She found a partner in Bethel University’s BUILD program, a two-year residential program that fosters social, academic and job skills for students with disabilities.

“She reached out to us and explained her desire to put her money where her mouth is,” said Ryan Anderson, intern supervisor for BUILD. “We sat down, had a cup of coffee and looked for ways we could support each other.

“She is really patient and understanding of both the joys and challenges of this work.”

On the day in January that Buckellew hired a second-year student to assist her, she posted on Instagram:

“Today was a day I’ve dreamed about for over a decade … I can put my words into the universe, but this action starts a ball rolling toward change.”

Because of the small-business setting, Buckellew is able to mentor the student one-on-one, a fairly unusual opportunity, Anderson said; most students are hired by larger companies.

“I like that I can be a resource and a reference for her after she graduates,” Buckellew said. “I know something is out there that she’s going to love, instead of being put in a box. I think that’s a huge payoff for her.”

Buckellew learned about BUILD indirectly through her position as former director of Miss Amazing Minnesota, a pageant program for young women with disabilities. It was a full-time volunteer position she accepted without really knowing what was involved, “but it was one of the best ‘yesses’ I’ve ever said,” she said.

Under her direction, the program expanded from six participants in 2012 to 50 last year, with 200 volunteers.

“One reason I fell so in love with Miss Amazing is that a woman with any kind of disability can participate,” Buckellew said. The pageant is technically a competition, she said, but the entrants set personal goals and are “judged” by their own criteria. “We’re asking them to be their best selves,” she said.

‘Educate, not berate’

Buckellew’s approach is simple. “I believe that trying to make people in your own circle better makes an impact,” she said.

“When we decide what’s important to us, it’s important to show the people around us. My family is now well-versed [in disability issues].”

As for the hockey players, Buckellew’s efforts to “educate, not berate” seem to have paid off.

“Sources,” she said, “tell me that the end of the season has been full of a lot more kindness and compassion than the start.”