“Can you make sure to get the logo in the photo too?”

This was the last request of Olympic Academy Program Director Joshua Maerzke on team picture day.

The staff gathered in front of the gymnasium doors for the group photo. Above them sits their beloved Mountaineer mascot.

Matt the Mountaineer is his name. It’s a name bestowed upon him by Olympic Academy to honor his creator, Matt Leeper.

“I became involved with Olympic Academy through my wife, Miranda [Leeper],” says Leeper. “When I’d come to help her set up her classroom during the summer, I mentioned to Josh Maerzke that I’d love to help out any way I could.”

“Matt immediately became a huge asset to our building,” recalls Maerzke. “Before we had talked about our goal of having a mascot, he noticed this need as well and began to play around with some ideas. Throughout the summer, he sent a few mockup ideas.”

Leeper’s love of art dates back to his childhood in Kentucky. It was a shared passion between him and his grandmother. But as he grew older, he found less time for art.

Much of his time away from art was spent in the Army and as a military contractor. During a deployment related to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he sustained an injury that left him permanently disabled.

This injury led him to decide it was time to return to college. There, he once again unlocked that childhood love of art after taking a few classes.

“I realized art was a positive way to work through some of my recent experiences,” said Leeper.

Olympic Academy’s mountaineering theme draws from a “Two Mountains” metaphor used by teachers, counselors, and therapists, according to Maerzke.

Students are encouraged to view their peers and staff as climbing over their own mountains, overcoming obstacles, and supporting one another. Staff want to help students climb those mountains and, hopefully, learn to enjoy climbing them.

The idea for a mascot and theme came together mainly over the summer of 2022. While they were already the Mountaineers, the Olympic Academy staff felt that an actual visual representation of it would unify the students and staff more.

“The goal of adding a mascot was to have a symbol that students, staff, and the community could initially begin to connect with, particularly since we are serving students from more than 20 districts in Washington state,” says Maerzke. “By adding a mascot, we really wanted to unite everyone, to help them feel included, and then start to draw on the theme to encourage each person to grow, adapt, and overcome.”

Leeper’s artist background came up after asking how he could assist the academy. He’d never created a logo or mascot for anyone, so this became a new challenge that he was ready to face.

“The academy was already known as the Mountaineers, so that part easy,” laughs Leeper. “I wanted to make a mascot that was something the students could enjoy and help them feel program pride. The academy needed a symbol to bring them all together. I was super excited about being able to contribute in a positive way for the program.”

Matt the Mountaineer has inspired various assignments at the academy. Kids have colored pictures of him and his dog Moose and made hats and beards resembling his.

Since the summer, Leeper and the students have created and named a group of Mountaineer friends for Matt, representing the entire student body.

“Having a mascot has also helped us, as a staff, have deeper conversations about identity, and Matt has been instrumental in helping to show our willingness to respond as a program,” said Maerzke. “We learned this year that the students want to see themselves when they see the mascot. Matt helped us do this by expanding representation in our mountaineers.

“It makes me feel proud to know this design is part of Olympic Academy that students can enjoy every day,” adds Leeper. “I tend to be a little quiet and not much on public praise, but it has really meant a lot to me that everyone enjoys it so much. It has rekindled my love of art in a fun way.”

This won’t be the last time Leeper works on art for Olympic Academy. Logos need to be created with Summit coming to Olympic Academy this fall.

He’ll be right there, ready to work on new designs, and the staff is looking forward to having his work adorn their halls again.

Olympic Academy