Mrs. Shriver, a Legacy of Courage

The following blog post was written by Clint Armistead, former National Youth Activation Committee member and Peace Corps Volunteer.

What can I say about Mrs. Shriver that hasn’t already been said? Amazing, determined, strong, beautiful, joyous, courageous. When asked to write about Eunice Kennedy Shriver (aka EKS for those unfamiliar with the Special Olympics acronyms) for the Project UNIFY Blog, I felt daunted by the task of writing about this amazing woman and doing her justice.

However, I think we’ve all felt daunted at sometime in our life, like we see the world about to crumble and we can do nothing about it. The forebodingness of it all, like attempting the impossible, that life plays against us and wants us to fail. Whether we’re talking about the world economic crisis or finding a job or facing the undefeated football team or overcoming writer’s block trying to write a blog about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, we can all get overwhelmed with the pressure, the thought, the certainty of failure.

When I get to these points in life, and as a young adult entering the “real world” I find myself in this arena often, I like to repeat my favorite quote by Eunice Kennedy Shriver—it’s also the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I find these words so simple and yet, so powerful, just like the woman who spoke them. I don’t know if Mrs. Shriver thought about this oath as much as I have but I know she lived it and I know she won.

Sometimes life boils down to courage. Do you have the strength and determination to wake up in the morning and fight the troubles of the day? From the worldwide battle against hunger to the schoolyard torment of a bully, each requires a great deal of fortitude (or guts). For Special Olympics athletes, coaches, volunteers, youth leaders and family members, EKS was an example of courage in action.

Around the world this Saturday, September 24, Special Olympics will celebrate the life and courage of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, without whom, millions of lives would remain unchanged. Amongst all her accomplishments, including founding Special Olympics, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, papal knighthood and even having her face on a U.S. coin, her greatest accomplishment is inspiring others. She inspires Special Olympics athletes to compete to the best of their abilities on the field, in the classroom, at home and in the workplace. She inspires small non-profits and advocates for social change. She inspires anyone with a dream. She inspires me.

So celebrate with us this year, if you’re in or around Washington, D.C., and join us in front of the White House as part of the Nickelodeon Day of Play. From around the world, you can celebrate in one simple way: do something courageous. Play with the kid down the street who everyone else thinks is weird. Build a sports complex for Unified Sports competition or start a Camp Shriver afterschool program.

Join organizations and volunteers who share in the same vision of an accepting world for all people regardless of differences and become the Eunice Kennedy Shriver of our generation. Celebrate Special Olympics, celebrate the inspiration, celebrate Mrs. Shriver, and celebrate the courage to face the daunting challenges of the day.

Special Olympics Celebrates Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day & Worldwide Day of Play

This Saturday, September 24th is the 2nd Annual Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day (aka EKS Day), which honors the amazing and inspirational founder of Special Olympics. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a trail blazing leader who broke down barriers to improve the lives of millions of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Each year on the 4th Saturday in September events of unity and acceptance around the world will celebrate the vision, commitment and achievements of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her tradition of making a difference. The theme for this year’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day is Play Unified to Live Unified.

Learn more about Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

This year we’re commemorating the amazing impact of Eunice Kennedy Shriver by partnering with Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play and CELEBRATING AN ENTIRE DAY DEDICATED TO ACTIVE PLAY!!

You and your family are invited to Washington, DC for a day
of family-friendly activities, sports & entertainment!

Saturday September 24, 2011
10 am – 4 pm
The Ellipse at the National Mall

Since we love to play (especially when we play UNIFIED), we’ll be at The Ellipse on The National Mall in Washington, DC all-day hosting a Unity Dance Party, demonstrating the amazing skills of our Special Olympics athletes in floor hockey and tennis and remembering the impact of Special Olympics’ founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Need another reason to come? Check out this fun video featuring some of Nick’s biggest stars and a certain First Lady! They’ll be there, so come join in the fun! (Plus, some big sports stars, like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Abby Wambach and Damien Woody, will be there, so you won’t want to miss it!)

So if you’re in the Washington, DC area on September 24, grab your friends and family and head to the National Mall for a fun-filled day of play! Plus, stop by the Special Olympics Project UNIFY tent and mention you read this blog post and we’ll give you a SWEET Project UNIFY prize!

Don’t fret if you’re not in the DC area – there are still tons of ways to get involved with Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day and Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play:

Today I’m playing unified to live unified in celebration of Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day and Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play. Join me, be a fan of @Special Olympics and let’s get out and play! http://www.eksday.org

Back to School

It’s that time of year again – time to go back to school! As teachers, students and parents make their final preparations for the school year to begin, Andrea Cahn, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Senior Director, and Betty Edwards, Chairman of the National Education Leadership Network, share an important message for the new school year:  

Do you remember the bittersweet excitement at the beginning of every school year? Summer was ending, yes, but for many of us, each September meant a fresh beginning—new teachers, a pristine three-ring binder or box of crayons, crisp just-bought clothes, the promise of achievement in the air. We felt the tingle of anticipation of friendships yet unformed, great successes still to be dreamed, and new discoveries of the world and ones’ self. We set foot onto the freshly waxed floors excited to see friends, participate in after-school activities, and to learn. For others, school never quite lived up to expectations and getting on the bus in the morning was a time of intimidation and concern — and for some, school was, and still is, a simply devastating experience.

How is it that even on that first hopeful day of school, some students are shining beacons, while others are ciphers unseen by other students or even their own teachers?

The excitement for school starts at kindergarten, when the angst is often greater for the parent than the child. But that wide-eyed exuberance fades in a less supportive, inclusive school. Just as Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about our schools draining the creativity out of our students, so can the natural curiosity and joy of learning evaporate if children are not provided with the opportunity to be central to and engaged in the learning experience.

As students advance through school, that angst can be shared by both parent and child. In the August 2011 issue of Middle Ground, Angela Thomas shares her own fears as her only child enters middle school.

I did not sleep well the night before. Despite the fact I knew Shayla had all of her sixth grade school supplies neatly packed in her new book bag and was very excited about starting middle school, many of the situations that broke my heart as a middle school teacher were suddenly flashing before me with extreme force.

Would someone else be there for her if she needed help? Would she be the brunt of someone’s joke or bullying? Would my daughter now be one of the kids who couldn’t get the combination lock to work? If she had a question, would she be too afraid to ask?

Parents’ concerns are not always unfounded. Last fall, a Florida father stormed onto a school bus to protect his daughter from students who had reportedly bullied his daughter. This was even more disturbing because the girl has a disability.  The father said he wished “kids would understand how much pain bullying and taunting causes other children.” His daughter had just begun middle school and has since changed schools.

Transition between schools is a challenging time for students, whether it’s elementary to middle, or middle to high, or to a new school altogether, and it’s a time when students can be “lost.” Leaving the cocoon of elementary school, students face much trepidation—some of it as simple as the idea of changing classes, or addressing the “fear” of the locker — “Will I be able to open my combination lock?” To an eleven-year-old that seemingly minor doubt can be traumatizing.

How traumatizing, too, to be a student labeled as “special needs” or with an intellectual “disability.” Someone for whom that transition from the safe, nurturing haven of home to the unwelcoming isolation of the school hallway happens every day. How paralyzing! How painful! Who could be expected to learn anything under these conditions?!

It is our responsibility to actively “be there” for students, observing, asking questions, and ensuring an environment in which each student is valued and acknowledged every step along their educational path. Dr. Thomas advised us to take the steps necessary to ensure that each student is known, that no one is a cipher.

When teachers really know their students, they know when something doesn’t feel right…Teachers need to reach out to families and share their insights…. It doesn’t take long, but it may make all the difference in a student’s life.

The beginning of the school year is a tremendous opportunity for adults in the school and community to work to ensure that each student has a positive experience at school and is engaged in his or her own learning. Project UNIFY has identified actions and structures that help provide an inclusive, supportive environment. Among those are:

  • School leaders  and staff:
    • create an inclusive culture, showcasing the work and achievements of all, creating unified programs, and eliminating boundaries between students.
    • actively encourages a sense of community among all students that promotes student engagement and relationships within and beyond the school setting.
    • provide regular and frequent activities in which adults and youth work together to solve problems and learn together, promoting a collaborative climate.
    • work to close gaps or division among students with and without disabilities and among the teachers who serve in the school.
    • eliminate physical barriers and creates an environment that is physically accessible, safe, and supportive for all.
    • All young people, regardless of ability or achievement level, are given a voice to make meaningful change in their classroom, school, and community.
    • Students are activated to co-develop, maintain, and be accountable for an inclusive climate and physical environment in their classrooms, school, and community.

So, at this beginning of a new school year, let’s ensure that a student’s excitement about school grows each year not diminishes; that students are known as powerful individuals; and that each student is given the opportunity make a difference, have a voice, and be an active member of the school community. We must care—and let students know that we care. We must recognize each student’s gifts and let each one shine brightly.