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?

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About Rebecca

Manager of Youth Leadership for Special Olympics Project UNIFY. I hope to share with you lots of great stories about our youth leaders, school programs and other amazing things we're doing here at Special Olympics.

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