Let Your Sparkle Shine!

Abby Rios is captain of the cheerleading squad at Clemens High School in Texas. As a sophomore she started an inclusive cheerleading team called the Buffalo Sparklers to include students with intellectual disabilities in her school. Below is an excerpt from a college application essay in which she showcases the importance of inclusion in schools. She was recently featured on the local news for her amazing contributions to Clemens High School. Abby is an inspiring youth leader!

During my sophomore year, a very special bridge was built. As football season came to an end, so did the pressure and chaos. Every day seemed a little bit slower, and everyone seemed to be in a constant exhale. No one could ignore the change in the atmosphere, whether it be the warmer clothes, the skittering leaves across the pavement, or the sound of basketballs echoing from the gym’s open doors.

My friend Sabrina and I were walking from the parking lot during our cheerleading period, and decided to stop. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were happy with anything. In we walk, with our faces smiling and cold, into the Adaptive P.E. Class. We smile even more, if that was possible, and wave at our classmates. With that friendly wave and some short greetings, we are swept into a game of basketball that I will remember for the rest of my life.

A lot happened that day. No mercy was shown on either side, and we were utterly demolished in the epic battle. Yet another encounter, and perhaps the most important one, would consist of more basketball with the boys, and a cheer taught to the girls. “I want to try out for cheerleading,” Shawnie said, “I would be a good cheerleader.”

And she would. She would evoke a response, she would make people smile, and isn’t that our goal? To make people proud to be a Buffalo? What was preventing Shawnie and the other girls from being cheerleaders?

Lightbulb… Let’s help them. If they want to be cheerleaders, let’s make it happen.

Of course, it was more paperwork and approval than anything, but when you’re working with a group as worth it as they are, the process seems less demanding. It also helped when I caught wind of an organization called the Sparkle Effect, which was a program started by two high schoolers in Indiana, and was exactly what I wanted to be a part of. They had ideas and support systems that would make the program more appealing to administrators and parents. Eventually, by my junior year, we were able to start The Buffalo Sparklers.

That year was fabulous, and even though we hadn’t gotten approval or uniforms until after the football and basketball seasons were ending, we got to make our first appearance at the Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Roosevelt high school. The girls looked beautiful in confidence. They looked even better in the spotlight of all of the parents’, players’, and volunteers’ smiles. They became different people, and I was right when I thought that they would make great cheerleaders. We cheered for every team, and I was proud to have had the opportunity to be a part of them.

This year, I can’t wait to see the crowds’ faces when they get to see what our school is really all about. I think they will appreciate the diversity that we represent, and will be as proud as I am to be a Buffalo.

When observing from the sidelines, I had always felt bad for them, but anyone who has ever interacted with kids or adults with special needs will not only develop a love for them, but also a respect, and a fascination.  I was wrong, and ignorant, to feel any other way. Just because they are different, doesn’t mean that they’re any more different than a boy is to a girl, or a cheerleader is to an honors student. There are more similarities than differences, but only the differences are perceived by most people.

In a way, they are the best people. They are a new kind of teacher. These kids taught me how to be patient, and honest. They lead by example, and they follow the right people, for the right reasons.

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Project UNIFY Keynote Speakers Wow Character Educators

Last week Project UNIFY youth leaders Soeren Palumbo and Danielle Liebl presented the keynote address at the Character Education Partnership National Forum. Below you will find a reflection from Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center, who attended the conference, as well as an excerpt from Danielle’s speech. Our youth leaders are amazing and inspiring!

October 21, 2011 was a day of “firsts” at the Character Education Partnership National Forum in San Francisco, California.

Danielle Liebl and Soeren Palumbo, two extraordinary Project UNIFY youth leaders, took the stage as the first student keynote speakers in the 18-year history of the Character Education Partnership (CEP). And their topic – “Creating Environments of Inclusion” – was the first-ever plenary session devoted entirely to the issues surrounding students with developmental disabilities in our schools.

Speaking to hundreds of the nation’s leading character educators, Soeren deftly linked the work of Special Olympics Project UNIFY to the core mission of CEP. He focused on the urgent need to create caring school communities that include all students, emphasizing the critical importance of student voice in those efforts. And he told the moving story of his sister Olivia’s experience as a student with a developmental disability in a school that takes inclusion seriously.

Danielle’s speech was a heartfelt account of how she found the inner strength to stand up for herself – and for all students with intellectual disabilities. Although she suffered from name-calling and harassment, Danielle responded not with bitterness or anger – but with courage and compassion. By creating a Partner’s Club promoting friendship between students with and without disabilities, Danielle demonstrated how a youth leader can help transform a school’s culture.

After Soeren and Danielle spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room. Everyone rose to their feet as one to applaud the message of inclusion – a message delivered from the heart by two remarkable young people. As people lined up afterwards to thank Soeren and Danielle (and give them an embrace), I knew that CEP and the character education movement would now do more to address issues of inclusion.

Thank you Danielle and Soeren for being such powerful ambassadors for Special Olympics Project UNIFY – and for all you have done and will do to inspire others to act with courage and conviction.

Read an excerpt from Danielle’s speech and be inspired by her powerful words and actions:

Before I continue telling my story, I would like to introduce myself; I am Danielle Liebl, an upcoming sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota and a Special Olympics athlete for more than nine years. At birth, I acquired Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is a disorder the affects my muscle control, coordination, motor skills, and simple movements such as standing, walking, breathing, eating, and learning. Cerebral Palsy is not only considered a physical disability but also a developmental disability as well. For most of my high school career I was considered “Special Ed.” As most of you already know, Special Education has a stereo-type, and personally I disapprove of it.

When I was in school bullying tended to be a regular occurrence for me. My peers started calling me names such as: stupid, ugly, or the one that I think is the most creative, four legs.

Little do these bullies realize, even though we can’t do some of the same things they can do…we can do some things BETTER than they can do. My fellow Special Olympics teammates hated the fact that other students thought this way and they wanted it to change because they felt excluded.

This is exactly what I did. When I was a junior in high school, I attended the Special Olympics Global Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. This led me to act out my desire to start a Partners Club with my best friend and unified partner. Partners Club provides an environment where students with and without disabilities can establish relationships as friends. The first year, the club contained fifteen students. Due to this club, you could see the change in the hallways; they were high-fiving and conversing in the hallways. But most importantly they considered each other friends.

Even though the movement has started there is a lot of change that still needs to happen. But this change is ultimately up to the youth. They want to change and shape their future; they want to have a voice. Are you willing to guide them? One of my favorite teachers once said to me, “Danielle, as much as I want to make this world the best it can be for you, I can’t. You have to do it yourself. If I did it for you, what kind of teacher would I be? I would not be teaching you that YOU can change the world. But always remember I am always here to GUIDE you.”

Are you willing to be that teacher to your students? Together let us learn, and possibly even teach each other a few things. Because someday, our desire for social justice will become a reality. And when that day comes we will be able to stand up and say that we have changed history.