Why are we surprised by the power of youth?!

YSA (Youth Service America) convened their 8th annual Youth Service Institute in Philadelphia, PA on October 24-26, 2011. As YSA’s signature training event, the Youth Service Institute (YSI) is an opportunity for YSA’s grantees and partners to come together for three days to be inspired, network with others in the youth engagement field, share best practices and great ideas, learn how to implement high quality service and service-learning programs, and prepare for Semester of Service and Global Youth Service Day (coming up January to April 2012). This year’s also served as the kick-off to a year of celebrating YSA’s 25th anniversary. The following post is from Andrea Cahn, Senior Director of Special Olympics Project UNIFY, who presented two sessions about diversity, focusing on Youth Not Traditionally Asked to Serve.

The YSA theme is Youth Changing the World, and this is one organization that really does focus on putting young people in positions of having a voice, understanding their power, and being given the tools to really have that impact so many young people know they can have if given the chance.

Special Olympics has partnered with YSA for years, and especially now with our work with Project UNIFY and the service-learning platform of our Get Into It lesson plans, activities and resources, the relationship makes a lot of sense.

Our core beliefs and guiding principle that youth of all abilities can and should lead our schools and communities in change for the better is one that resonates in the service-learning community. The participants in my session at the YSI were really interested to learn how they could make service opportunities more open to all abilities. We talked a lot about how the first step is often education of the other adults and young people in the school or community so that they can see and experience the gifts and skills of students with special needs and gain an understanding of how service is just as important to them, and how capable they are as server-ERS. Everyone nodded their head in agreement when I talked about our population’s interest in not only being perceived as the ones in NEED of service, but also being full able to contribute as well.

Get Into It can be the perfect way to start service projects that address the issue. By focusing on inclusive projects, such as student rallies for respect, Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns or Unified Sports teams and leagues, students improve their schools to be more accepting and welcoming for all students. There are tons of ways within the school itself to help make all students feel proud, welcome and part of the fabric of the school community and I was able to share a lot of our Special Olympics and Project UNIFY tools that can support these efforts in the classroom and on the playing field.

So the experience at YSI was all good, even exhilarating. What a committed group of young people and adults that came together last week! And yet, I can’t help but feel that even after all these years, and after all the good work and promotion of this concept, and after 25 years of YSA, even at the YSI, youth having a voice, youth included at the table with adults, youth being recognized for their contributions – is all still seen as a novelty, or something that surprises people because we don’t see it often enough, or in some places, maybe not at all.

This really hit me at the closing session, where young people from the YSA youth council were asked to sit on a panel and share their thoughts on their readiness, willingness, and ability to serve and change the world. They were impressive; the questions they asked and that were asked of them showed how much trust can be placed in the hands of young people. But over and over I heard comments of how rare it is to see this, how seldom young leaders are asked to the table; how their answers and perspectives were so impressive. Of course the youth panel showed themselves to be thoughtful, passionate, and willing to work side by side with adults, and they received a standing ovation.

Why do we as adults continue to be so surprised?

‘Special Olympics is My Family’

Our youth leaders are a pretty inspiring group of people, but they don’t just participate in Special Olympics to look good on college applications, they are truly passionate about creating equality and respect for people with intellectual disabilities. Below is an amazing post from Samantha Huffman, National Youth Activation committee member and junior at Hanover College. Why are you involved with Special Olympics?

You look at me and you think, ‘Why does she do Special Olympics?’

You find out that I’m a partner and you mockingly say ‘oh, so you participate in the Special Olympics? Aww good job! Did you get a gold medal?’ Implying that I too have a disability.

You think that you’re clever- making such a funny joke.

But what you don’t see is why I do what I do, what it means to me, and how it’s shaped the person that I am today. And, what you don’t understand is that with these thoughts and comments, you’re offending me and you’re offending everything that I stand for.

Everyone has that one experience that changed the course of his or her life. That one action you took or decision you made; that if you wouldn’t have made it, well, you wouldn’t be the person that you are today.

When I decided to give up one recess in second grade to help students in the Special Education class, I never thought that it was going to be the one decision that changed me. I honestly don’t even know what I thought or why I agreed to give up my recess. But, I do know that it was the best decision of my life.

Think about the idea of being in love:
The uncontrollable smile;
The tightness in your stomach;
The longing when you’re separated;
The passion.
That’s how I am with Special Olympics.
I’m in love with it.

Think about your life. I can only hope that you have something that makes you feel this way; something you’re completely in love with.

Special Olympics is a program with the most pure human beings. They don’t judge; they’re optimistic; they always cheer you on; and they believe in you. Special Olympics is not only an organization I’m involved with-it’s my family.

So, when you have those thoughts and make those comments about my involvement with Special Olympics, you’re offending my love; you’re offending my family. But, if you were to come to a Special Olympics event, our arms would be wide open, welcoming you into our family. If you were to come to a Special Olympics event, you too could find another love. If you were to come a Special Olympics event, you’re life could be changed. Now, ask yourself- why am I involved with Special Olympics and why aren’t you involved?

Thank You, Mrs. Shriver

The following is another reflection from Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day and Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play, written by Special Olympics Colorado youth leader Kaitlyn Smith.

Standing on the National Mall in Washington DC, I take a minute to step back and let it all soak in. All around me are children of all abilities smiling, playing sports, and having a great time playing together. The more I watch, the more I realize that this is it, this is Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision, and this is her victory!

On September 24th, I not only had the opportunity to celebrate Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life in Washington DC, but I got to do so in conjunction with the Nickelodeon Worldwide Day of Play. All day I got to help and witness children with and without disabilities playing sports, and doing so with unity and respect for each other. Throughout the day I saw the amazing work of Eunice Kennedy Shriver having an impact on our world.

During the event, a woman came up to me and asked me who Eunice Kennedy Shriver was; however, that question is not one that could be answered easily. Yes, she is the woman that started the worldwide movement of Special Olympics from a summer camp in her backyard, but she did so much more than that… she changed the world. The more I attempted to answer her question, the more I started to realize that it is not something that can be answered in words.

When you have the opportunity to watch a basketball game that has individuals with and without disabilities playing together; that is thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. When you see someone without a disability be friends with someone that has an intellectual disability; that is thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. When you can see individuals with disabilities smile with success because they were given a chance; that is thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life cannot be adequately explained in words. You need to see the smiles on the athlete’s faces, the strength in every kick, and the joy of every win. Mrs. Shriver’s life and legacy lives on through all of the athletes of Special Olympics.

It was such an honor to be able to be in Washington DC to celebrate the life of such an incredible lady. Mrs. Shriver has touched the lives of millions of athletes, and more to come. She went against all odds, touched the lives of a neglected population, and completely changed the mind-set of the world. Her life, legacy, and passion will live on forever.

Worldwide Day of Play – A celebration of inclusion and fun!

In celebration of Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, youth leaders from around the United States came to Washington, D.C. to participate in Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play and be examples of inclusion in action. Below are thoughts from two youth leaders about the amazing experience of inclusion, acceptance, unity and fun!

Nickelodeon’s Day of Play on September 22, 2011 in Washington D.C. was a celebration I believe Mrs. Shriver would have enjoyed!  This day of united play is almost like the sports opportunities promoted through Special Olympics!  Mrs. Shriver’s legacy is all about providing an opportunity for everyone to participate together in sports. No matter how strong we are, how perfect we are or how good we are – Special Olympics lets us try new things and challenges us to be our best everyday!

I want to tell everyone about Special Olympics because no matter who you are there’s something for you! You can be a young or older athlete, a unified partner, a fan in the stands, an ambassador, a volunteer, a coach, a fundraiser – ANYTHING YOU WANT TO BE!  Whoever you are or whatever you do – you can give to others!  What I’ve found by being an athlete is that I have to work hard to be the best I can be.  All of us have something to give to others; we just have to work for it!  Special Olympics inspires me to do my best in everything I do!  I want to be an active member of my community. I want to give back to all the people who have helped me, encouraged me, taught me, and provided the opportunities for me to be strong, independent, and a young leader.  I want to help Special Olympics grow so that everyone can stand unified in acceptance, respect and dignity for all people.

Mrs. Shriver’s legacy has inspired so many to be more than they thought they could.  She promotes acceptance, hope and dignity.  My dream joins hers so that we can continue carrying the torch and lighting the path for a more accepting world for everyone. I’m proud to be a Special Olympic athlete!  Join us in carrying forward the message and vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in promoting each individual to their fullest potential – in athletics, education, community living and employment!  We can live her dream today!
Jared, National Youth Activation Committee Member and Special Olympics Missouri athlete

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Another youth perspective:

During the Nickelodeon World Wide Day of Play Event in Washington, D.C., over 50 organizations were present to educate, empower, and share their resources with the community.  Special Olympics was one of them, which created a positive environment where all individuals regardless of ability, color, religion, and experience could play and learn through the power of Unified Sports. 

Many preparations were planned in how to effectively reach out to people to share Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s legacy, demonstrate the influence of Unified Sports, and bring awareness about many initiatives of Special Olympics such as Project UNIFY.  When the gates opened, floods of people dispersed throughout the Mall with happy faces, ready to have to fun!  At the Special Olympics tent, various interactive and eye-catching posters captured the spirit of Special Olympics.

Next to the tent was a Floor Hockey area, where local Special Olympics Athletes came to teach others not just the sport, but through their teamwork showed perseverance, strength, courage, and true sportsmanship.  Many of the spectators came to either participate in the skills building or playing the actual game!

One of the most touching experiences was a young child who used a wheelchair, was one of the participants in the skills building session.  Even though she had certain physical limitations, she did not let them stop her from having fun!  She tried her best, beaming with pride as she held the hockey stick.  Fellow teammates cheered as she made the final goal!

Through Special Olympics…
…we accept people for who they are
…we respect people for their differences
…we empower people to do their best

And we create opportunities for individuals to see that everyone has value!