My Goal: National Youth Activation Committee

One of our first blog entries by the National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) members. Kaitlyn Smith is a member of Special Olympics Colorado YAC. She participated at National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha, Nebraska during the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games. She recently joined the National YAC in the fall of 2010. Here is what her said about her first year on board the National YAC.

“Why did you decide to get involved with Special Olympics in your community, and what have you learned from this experience?” Staring at the question, I had so many thoughts and answers running through my head, but how could I possibly explain what I’ve learned from Special Olympics in a simple one-hundred words or less? When I think about Special Olympics, I don’t just think about an organization… It is so much more than that! It’s a family. This family has taught me so much, and helped me become who I am today. My journey through Special Olympics over the past four years has become what defines me as a person.

In December of 2009, I was introduced to the family of Special Olympics when I joined the Youth Activation Committee for Colorado. In a matter of months, I was selected to represent Special Olympics Colorado at the National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha Nebraska. The whole time I was in Nebraska, it felt surreal to me. Special Olympics was something that I loved, but when I was in a room packed with other people that had the same goals and feelings as me, I realized that Special Olympics was my passion. All of the sessions in Nebraska were led by a group of youth that had an amazing amount of drive, passion and enthusiasm. On one of the bus rides in Nebraska, I sat next to Clement, who was one of the youth helping run the Summit. I asked him questions about how he got involved, and he went on to tell me about how he was a member of the National Youth Activation Committee for Special Olympics and that this was just one of the things that they do. He told me all about the committee, and the amazing work that they have the opportunity to help with. It became my dream, and my goal to become a member.

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About a month after the Youth Activation Summit in Nebraska, I got an email with an application to join the Youth Activation Committee. I was so excited to apply, but I wanted my application to be flawless. I spent hours trying to deconstruct questions like “Why did you decide to get involved with Special Olympics in your community, and what have you learned from this experience?” in an answer one-hundred words or less, and find the perfect adults to write me recommendations. I had friends and teachers edit my application several times, to make sure it was perfect before mailing it in.

After I mailed in my application I checked my email daily, hoping for an answer. Then one day when I logged into my email, there was an email from Joanne Maldonado with the subject “NYAC Selection.” I quickly opened it and read “Your application stood out to the committee and I am pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for a two-year term as a new National Youth Activation Committee member.” I was beyond speechless. I read through the email several times before it finally sank in. I started calling everyone that knew I had applied and shared the amazing news with them (or rather screamed the amazing news at them, with much excitement). I knew this was an amazing opportunity for me to expand my love and passion for Special Olympics.

Now that I have been a member of the NYAC for eight months, looking back, I know that this has been one of the most amazing things that has ever happened in my life. Ever since my first NYAC meeting in Washington D.C., I immediately felt like a part of the “family”. As a new member (that didn’t really know what she was doing), I was asked to be a co-chair of the communications sub-committee and from there, all the members accepted me like I had been with them for years. I get to do work for Special Olympics at a national level that helps state programs around the country better the lives of their athletes. All the members on the NYAC have the same passion for Special Olympics and the same drive to make the lives of people with intellectual disabilities as inclusive and accepting as possible. The experiences that I have had so far as a NYAC member and the friendships I have gained are just the beginning. Special Olympics is my life, my love and my passion; and being a part of the National Youth Activation Committee will give me the opportunity to help Special Olympics in ways I didn’t know were possible.

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Where is the Outrage?

The following is a great reflection from Terry Pickeral, Senior Education Consultant for Special Olympics Project UNIFY, on the importance of creating inclusive school environments. This post was originally posted on the Cascade Matters Blog.

In the world of education there is a current stream of outrage concerning the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. How dare administrators allow or encourage changing students’ responses on tests? How dare teachers participate in such activities that do not accurately reflect students’ competencies? How dare a system create a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation?

How dare they!?

The public’s outrage is warranted. Of course we want school systems that are honest about their outcomes; of course we want students to effectively learn course content and score well on tests; at the same time, don’t we also want our students to experience a school environment that is inclusive, fair, safe, equitable and engaging; and shouldn’t we understand how these are all connected to testing and other educational outcomes?

So, where is the outrage when every day in our schools students, because of race, gender, socio-economics, sexual orientation or physical or intellectual disability, do not feel safe, do not experience fairness and equitable opportunities to succeed and are not engaged in all school activities? Our outrage should not merely be about testing. This is about accountability. Our public schools are created to reflect our nation’s democratic principles and should be held accountable for these civic virtues.

Inclusive schools, according to the Inclusive Schools Network, are built on the strong philosophical belief that all children can learn and be successful within a shared academic environment. Culturally responsive educational strategies, differentiated instruction and positive behavioral supports are some of the inclusive practices employed in academic and non-academic settings within an inclusive school. Inclusive schools offer all students opportunities and support that will allow them to become self-determined, productive, and socially involved citizens – which, in turn, means developing students who are active co-creators of an inclusive school. It’s a generative cycle.

Inclusion should not be an option for schools but rather a commitment and a core value – and in itself an effective strategy – to ensure equitable access and success for students and adults.

Special Olympics Project UNIFY focuses on creating inclusive schools by ensuring all students are encouraged and supported to be “agents of change” – where all students are capable of being leaders, can participate in school activities and encouraged to engage in unified sports (teams of special education and general education students). All students deserve the opportunity to experience an engaging school and community environment that recognizes their gifts and shares them with others. For more information on Project UNIFY visit: http://www.specialolympics.org/project_unify.aspx

The public is outraged when they learn about cheating in schools and makes it an urgent issue for policymakers, education leaders and school staff to address. Shouldn’t there be a similar outrage and sense of urgency when even one student does not feel safe and included in their own school environment?

Reflections on the GYAS from Ben and Sarah

 

GYAS Friends

Sarah:

Beginning to describe the incredible ways in which the Global Youth Activation Summit has impacted me proves itself to be a difficult task. The first moment when I walked into the Stratos Hotel I was met by welcoming, smiling faces and intertwined into a community of inspired, motivated, determined, and powerful people. Everyone had so much in common that we clicked right away. Optimism, leadership, respect, and empowerment gave us a common platform to build friendships that will last a lifetime. 

I was blown away by how each group presented their ideas in unique styles and in their native language. Witnessing the diversity of Project Unify showed me that the whole world is ready to lead a dignity revolution. I am thrilled for what is to come on an international level as well as the upcoming projects Ben and I are starting back in Colorado. The youth are not just going to be leaders tomorrow, we are leaders now! We are changing the world!

Ben and I wish to be involved with future Global Youth Activation Summits; however, as I realize we will not be “youth” forever, we are going to go where ever the summer games take us, for as long as possible. I would like to make it a tradition to go to every World Summer Games from now on. It is easy for me to say that the GYAS was one of the best experiences of my life. Ime mesa!

Ben and Tyler

Ben:

Hi my name is Ben Barnhart and I am from Colorado. I liked going around to all of the competitions and watching the young athletes program to get more information about it so that we can bring it back to Denver.

I liked making a lot of new friends. All of my friends were very kind and helpful when I needed it. I loved having breakfast with them. It was hard to say goodbye.

It was a pleasure to have Tim Shriver at our table for the Conversation Series. We gave each other good ideas that we will bring back to Colorado.

The opening ceremonies had good singers and dancers and lots of fireworks. Walking into the stadium with the crowd cheering was so cool because I got to be with my friends and wave at the people cheering for me.

I would like to come back to another World Games and participate in another GYAS because it was a good experience in my life.

The Action and Reaction of Sport

The following is a reflection on the Special Olympics World Summer Games Athens 2011 from Jenni Newbury, Curriculum and Education Resource Manager for Special Olympics International.

The 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece was the largest sporting event in the world this year. Spectators watched athletes from 170 different countries compete at the highest level in 22 Olympic sports.

Having grown up in the Down syndrome community, I understand the positive impact sport has on people like my brother, Jason. More importantly, I understand the ability of sport to break down barriers: people don’t need to speak the same language to compete on the soccer field, and while many of my friends growing up weren’t comfortable hanging out with my brother, they were often willing to come watch him and his teammates play baseball. Special Olympics is based on the claim that sports can change attitudes, open minds, and renew hearts. But how do you get to that point? How do you take an impressive sporting experience and translate that into a life-changing moment?

Over the past two weeks I had the opportunity to work behind the scenes at the World Games, specifically in the area of guest management and Unity Sports. It was here that I was able to see this translation of Special Olympics in action. In guest management, I had the privilege of working with our U.S. Presidential Delegation as they experienced the opening ceremonies and some of the first few activities of the Games. For Unity Sports, I worked to assist in the execution of a variety of sporting events where Special Olympics All Star Fans competed alongside and against Special Olympics athletes in a variety of sports. Both experiences provided tremendous interactive opportunities for our guests to get a real idea of the taste and feel of Special Olympics.

Through these opportunities, we invited people into the bigger picture of Special Olympics. Yes, we were at the largest sporting event of the year, but Special Olympics is more than just an event. Dr. Jill Biden could have easily sat and watched the Opening Ceremonies as the athletes marched in. But instead, she spent time doing a meet and greet with the U.S. Delegation and then marched alongside the U.S. athletes, shaking hands and getting a front row seat to the excitement and anticipation for the Games to begin. Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan and Apollo Ohno could have easily sat on the sidelines to cheer on the roller skating teams. But instead, they laced up their skates and competed in a relay with Special Olympics athletes by their side, close enough to see the lines of determination and courage on every athlete’s face. Dr. Vetumbuavi Veii, Director of Sport in the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture of Namibia, could have easily attended his country’s events, cheering for Namibia on the sidelines and then calling it a day. But instead, he took the time to attend a breakfast on Youth Engagement, sharing his personal experience with Special Olympics and the impact it has had on his life. He staged a discussion among athletes, youth, staff and other world leaders so that they could challenge the next generation to transform Special Olympics in the future.

Hundreds of competitions took place during the ten day span of these Games. With every competition, records were shattered, expectations were surpassed, and boundaries were broken. And yet, in the midst of it all, those behind the scenes were making sure that the message was heard loud and clear:

“Playing unified isn’t enough, we have to live unified.”

“These Games are part of something much greater – a dignity revolution.”

In Athens, I had the privilege of watching this message sink in – watching as a face of sympathy or compassion turned into determination for social change; as fans of the Games transformed into champions for a movement. The power of sport as a vehicle for change is an undeniable part of our 40 year history. Yet, what we’ve learned in Athens is that the interactions off the field are just as valuable – the message of the Games, or the simple statement of Ime Mesa (I’m in!) motivates people to take a step beyond medals and to join the movement of unity and respect in their own area as the athletes from each country lead the dignity revolution back home.

GYAS Reflection-Mandi DeWitt- SOCO

The 2011 Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit was like a story out of a dream, from a dreamer who envisions a world without judgment, without rejection, and without hate.  With the landscape of beautiful Athens, Greece, the scenery was inspiring in itself but more importantly the power of the human spirit that I witnessed was surely what continued to take my breath away. 

From the incredible collection of cultural dances, songs, and testimonies of struggle and triumph came an overwhelming flood of strength, joy, and love, but more importantly the common purpose that was shared by everyone resonated in every personal conversation among new friends, every leadership session, and simply every encounter I had.  Whether it was a brief hello in passing or an intimate time of sharing, one thing was consistent.  We were all there because we believe in what’s possible. 

Every one of us, young or old, is that dreamer.  We are one in the same because we all believe in each other and in the impact we have when we come together as ONE unified force.  We have proved, as evidenced by this Youth Summit that when we work together not only in our own countries but with others around the world we build ties of indestructible strength.  We ignite a power so fierce that no negative words or actions can stop us from achieving our goal of acceptance, respect and dignity for all. 

I was personally awakened and reminded of the true power that our youth are capable of.  A fire was stirred in my soul to dig deeper into the untapped and undiscovered potential within my youth leaders and within myself.  It was very motivating to network with other adults who were also working to empower our world’s young people.  I am so honored to have met all my new allies and believe that what’s to come from these youth leaders is going to be anything but ordinary.  This experience has built us up, bound us together, strengthened our hearts, and energized our souls.  I know I will continue to follow in step with our youth revolutionaries as they lead the way to positive, permanent change.

It is such a privilege to know and be a part of such an incredible team of warriors.  I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to experience this powerful event and be witness to the life altering moments of real and honest dignity.  Standing alongside all of you declaring that we will not only speak about what we want, we will not only be heard but we will do whatever it takes, everyday leaving footprints of progress for others to follow.

Project UNIFY at the GYAS

The 12 U.S.-based youth leaders who attended the Global Youth Activation Summit, each had the opportunity to experience, learn and activate with their peers from around the world. Now, they’re motivated to take what they learned in Greece and create stronger communities of acceptance and respect in their home cities and states. Below some of the PU youth share their experiences and their goals for the future! Pretty inspiring stuff!

Sarah Holleman, partner, North Carolina:
At the Youth Summit I have learned that we all have different ways, new ideas, talents, but most importantly we bring this together to create a world of acceptance and respect through Special Olympics. This was truly the experience of a lifetime and wishing it didn’t fly by so fast! All of the sessions definitely wowed me with all the ideas and experiences others had and I also loved hearing them be explained in their language because I have NEVER heard so many different languages spoken in one place! I now plan to share the ideas I got from this experience with the North Carolina YAC. I would love to do a Red Laces campaign at my school.  I want to create a PSA, but not sure what it will say yet. I plan to come up with some new fundraiser ideas based on some of the ideas I heard while in Greece. All I know is I plan to stay active and push my hardest to make a difference and I will be a part of the change in this movement.

Daniel Fink, GYAS Youth Facilitator, Alaska:
It was great meeting everyone and sharing so many great experiences in Greece!  In the past few months I know all the delegations have done lots of work preparing for the GYAS and as one of the four facilitators I was more than impressed with the preparedness and level of quality in all the presentations that were presented throughout our two weeks together.  We covered many important topics relating to specific Special Olympics initiatives and youth leadership as a whole and I am excited to see all the amazing projects and action plans that will come into fruition after our hard work in Greece!

At our last world games in Boise, ID, I was an attendee just as many of you were in Athens and now I have been blessed to help lead this past GYAS.  Throughout the two years between the summits I have witnessed an extensive improvement in the dedication and leadership of youth from around the world among all levels of Special Olympics.  In Greece I could not have been more impressed with the true international youth feel that we had.  We had youth from 30 countries from around the world that were eager and willing to share their experiences and learn from those around them.  Hearing so many different languages and perspectives really added to my experience because I felt that we really encompassed a unified team of youth from around the world.  While some people were worried about the language barrier, I can attest that while it may have been hard at times to understand a foreign language, the energy and level of accomplishment was unbelievable.

For me one of my favorite parts was our Cultural Sharing night.  After a few days of being together as a group and learning more about each other I felt the energy in the room while people were sharing a part of their culture was fantastic.  From singing and dancing to yodeling and wrestling we truly had a remarkable night of fun and entertainment.  The energy present that night echoed throughout the conference when we were talking about the future of the youth movement and our ideals for what would take place in the next few years.  The universal appeal to improving school programs and pushing unified sports was another positive outlook I saw.  Going back to Alaska and then back to school in Washington I have a new desire to grow the unified sports movement and share the joy of Special Olympics with as many people as I can.

Tanealya Hueth, GYAS Youth Facilitator & athlete, Montana
My experience at the Global Youth Activation Summit as a youth facilitator and leader in Greece was a big responsibility. I was responsible for making sure everyone was on time and that the Summit participants wrote blogs about their experience in Greece. My experience as a facilitator was great – I got a lot of positive comments back from everyone. Daniel Fink and I got to interview athletes and I also got to work with Tim Shriver as well which was fun. The whole Shriver family came to our meeting and they talked about Eunice Kennedy Shriver and how she started Special Olympics. They told us to get back on the playing field, never let our team down and keep our heads held high.

Tyler Calabrese, partner, Nebraska
To celebrate the energy and excitement of the Global Youth Activation Summit, Tyler put together a video documenting his experience in Greece.

acceptance

when you accept someone new you have the right to put them on the playing field and to be at the sides when i meet the india team we were stuck like glue we had alot of fun being at the gyas i will never forget when i said my last goodbyes in athens greece  i had a blast interviewing athletes and coaches. i want to travel alot and go to new gyas meetings i will always remember how i got to meet tim shriver the coo of special olympics of washington dc and how he works with project unify committee and how he always talks about playing on the playing field it doesn’t matter who you are you just play on the field and respect your teammates and coaches. when i was in athens greece for the world games i got to meet team brazil and paraguay and team italy it was so much fun hanging out with those kinds of team they act like your team and always have fun cheering for gyas 2011 and we got to sing their song i sure do miss seeing the acropolis and sight seeing and learning how to take the metro there then i got to work with soeren and he talked about the r word campaign and how he got it going in his so college just like timbo did i also got to meet the beach volleyball player as well so i got some good ideas about the project unify for our next meetings i am hoping we get to go to korea or back to lincoln nebraska for gyas meetings i would love to do that and faciliate more than i have ever done before.

sincerely tanealya hueth 2011 gyas