“Our World, Our Future”: Youth Changing the World

About the Authors: Clement Coulston and Danielle Liebl are members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® National Youth Activation Committee. They recently attended the National Service Learning Conference to network, share and learn with other youth, teachers, and organizations throughout the world. 

In looking at the problems facing society today, one can grow hopeless and overwhelmed to address those challenges.  Too often, humanity looks at youth as energetic individuals, but neglects to utilize us as competent individuals to work to address societal issues.  Our community is at a loss from not making use of this untapped potential and creativity.

However, at the 23rd National Service Learning Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, we witnessed the power of youth engagement, passion for change, and leadership.  Many youth from various organizations gathered to raise awareness for various causes, like recycling programs and using sports as a catalyst for social change.  Experiencing and embracing youth leadership made us ponder how we often define the word, “leadership.” 

What does leadership mean to you?

Ability to take a stance?  The person who is academically talented, athletic, and popular?  These are some of the common descriptions people associate with being a leader.  We are going to propose to you a new perspective.

Through our work with Special Olympics Project UNIFY, we challenge the meaning of leadership to identify, utilize, and embrace the talent of each person to contribute to the community.  In the past, the input of youth with disabilities has been undermined and even unincorporated in many of the core activities at schools.  This has propelled us to evaluate how youth are integrated into the school to ensure each person not only has a voice, but are provided meaningful opportunities to be engaged!

We are shifting the paradigm of leadership from leadership of the few, to co-leadership, where each person is a leader by sharing their talents with the community.  We are  improving the educational system by including youth input.  We are providing a new perspective and unique proposals in addressing some of the problems faced today.

We challenge you to see your colleagues and peers as valued and talented individuals who have talents to share!  However, we must open our eyes to their ability, rather than look down upon their challenges.

We see talent and ability first, do you?


Meeting Lauren Alaina at the NYLC

I was so excited when I meet Lauren Alaina at the National Youth Leadership Conference. I got to be at the press conference with her and Danielle Liebl and she performed at the convention center. She sang Wildflower and Georgia Peaches. I got to have one on one time with her at the conference and asked her questions about Special Olympics and how she got involved in her hometown and how she can work with athletes and unified partners.

At the NYLC, I got to learn to make schools inclusive, instead of exclusive, and encourage people to join the Special Olympics group or partners club in their school. On Wednesday night we got to have an ice cream social with Lauren Alaina and ask her more questions and tell her our stories about how we got involved in Special Olympics. I was so glad I got to be part of the National Service Learning Conference for Special Olympics and walk around Minnesota and go to the Mall of America. We walked to the Minnesota Special Olympics office to have our meetings and the state mentors were there with the Youth Activation Summit members and communications group. The state mentors learned something new from the Youth Activation group and what they can do back in their hometowns and what they can change in their Youth committee. I am going to encourage Montana to apply for a Special Olympics grant to have a Youth Activation summit in my home town, encourage my group to do more R word campaigns, rallies and youth leadership conferences.

tanealya hueth program development committee.

Igniting Passion for Project UNIFY

Connor Moore is currently a freshman at his high school Salesianum in Wilmington, Delaware. He has been involved in Special Olympics as a Unified Partner since he was eight, and is also a member of the Delaware State YAC. Through Project UNIFY, Connor hopes to promote compassion and leadership to his peers.

Connor recently attended a Special Olympics Project UNIFY Regional Workshop in Rhode Island. Below he shares his experience.

Probably like every teenager on the planet would, I walked into this conference uneasy. I knew seven people out of the many that were there, and this was definitely new territory to me. Sure, Special Olympics is something I’m passionate about, but this was something unlike anything else. I could tell before I even arrived.

After a reassuring pat on the back from my friend Rachel, the athlete I was accompanying on the trip, we stepped into the hotel. We were attending the Project UNIFY Regional Spring Workshop in Providence, Rhode Island. The first thing I laid eyes on was, true to my nature, the cookies and iced tea laying out for the arriving delegations. The ultimate way, as far as I’m concerned, to start three days worth of workshops.

Actually, the word “workshop” is probably one of the worst ways to describe the seminars we attended. A workshop, frankly, sounds boring and tedious to sit in. My Project UNIFY experience was anything but! Hours, sessions, meals, and discussions flew by; leaving me with tons of ideas and inspiration to bring back to my home state of Delaware.

Essentially, it was at 2:00am when I had my “bingo moment.” I was staring at my ceiling, taking in all I had experienced that day. At that very moment I realized why 14 different states were here in Rhode Island; why we were missing school for the week. Teenagers across the nation are incredibly alike, and those with a cognitive disability are no different. We all go to high school every week; it’s not something unusual to us. It is definitely familiar territory. Yet, even in a familiar environment, some teenagers walk into school everyday with that same uneasy feeling I had when walking into the conference. A disability is a silly reason to feel uneasy and not at home in your own high school!

I explained this idea to my roommate, and he couldn’t have agreed more. It had finally clicked with me, and left me with renewed passion to do everything I could to involve Project UNIFY more in my local program. The fire was started, so to speak, and the world is going to be an inferno by the time I am done with it!

Leaving the conference was probably my least favorite part. How I wished it were a weeklong workshop! I enjoyed every second of it; from the food, to the workshops, to the people I met. It was not going to be easy to leave. However, a farewell cookie and iced tea seemed to do the trick!

In short, three days in Warwick, RI taught me how to motivate, educate, and activate peers throughout my state and effective methods of doing so. I left inspired to take on anything in order to promote acceptance and leadership in my community.

Engaging Others

Post submitted by Anderson Williams, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. In addition to regional, national, and international training and consulting work, Williams co-authored “The Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change” and “Youth Organizing for Educational Change” with the Forum for Youth Investment.

Part of the confusion and pressure of being a middle and high school student is not just that relatively new feeling of “otherness” (i.e. being different) but that this feeling charges our emotional and cognitive development in ways that can last a lifetime. These are truly formative years. Starting in our teens and carrying through the rest of our lives, we develop habits in response to our “otherness” in which we:

  1. conform and adapt so that we are included (eliminate otherness),
  2. isolate and look for proxies for positive social relationships (neutralize otherness), or
  3. develop the confidence to be who we are regardless of what others think (celebrate otherness)

The reality is that during the teenage years we move in and out of all of these responses quite frequently and without notice. This is kind of what defines the teenage years. It’s why adults think teens are weird! It is also what makes the teenage years such a critical time for inclusion and genuine engagement.

But, for many students with physical and intellectual disabilities, the option of “conforming” feels impossible in a traditional sense. They are so strongly considered “other” by peers and adults that the opportunity to just become one of the group is out of their hands. Similarly, they are often structurally isolated – both socially and physically – living parallel lives to their same-aged peers in their own wing of the school, with their own teachers, classrooms, and school and community activities.  And, as long as this is the case, as long as they are the “others”, inclusion and full engagement are impossibilities for everyone.

The fact is that every teen, every one of us actually, is “other”.

We are all different and we all need to have a say in our own development and the paths we choose. When otherness is allowed the space to be celebrated, inclusion, rather than isolation, becomes the norm. When everyone is understood as other then otherness as we know it no longer exists. And, when we engage others, we all engage our best selves.

Young People Change the World

Last July, 67 young people with and without intellectual disabilities from around the world gathered in Athens, Greece for the 2011 Global Youth Activation Summit (GYAS) as part of the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games. During the GYAS, our amazing youth leaders participated in discussions, shared resources and developed strategies to activate young people in their home countries to create communities of respect and social change.

Well, I’m excited to share that over the last eight months, our GYAS youth leaders were hard at work implementing projects and fostering the ‘Dignity Revolution’ in their home countries.

As a result of their collective efforts:

  •   1,016            Educators joined the movement
  •   338               Schools became involved
  •   4,601            Special Olympics athletes participated in activities
  •   3,739            Youth volunteers supported local events
  •   97                 Unified sports teams were formed/participated in events
  •   99                 Youth Activation events were conducted

In addition to their amazing effort as a group of global youth leaders, I wanted to highlight some of the truly impressive goals, projects and accomplishments that took place this year. Read about their projects and reflections on the past eight months:

Great Britain:
From George Holt and Keven Shard:
“Locally, the impact of the project has been better than expected, with 13 different groups and 4 different schools becoming involved – hosting presentations, try days and sports festivals. The Unified Football festival part of project had 14 teams attend, and as a result one group, with up to 4 football teams, has now signed up as a new Special Olympics group and is keen to become more involved with other unified sports.

Two schools want to start after-school Unified Sports sessions with links between local mainstream and special education schools. One of these schools wants to register some pupils with the local Special Olympics group and work Special Olympics programmes into their school Physical Education lessons, so that pupils can enter competitions, and also attend Unified Sport sessions at the local Special Olympics.”

Read more about youth leaders Keven and George who are working for change in Great Britain.

Colorado, USA:
From Sarah and Ben Barnhart:
“Very few high school youth were involved in Project Unify in my school and community, yet many had the leadership qualities to make a difference for those with intellectual disabilities. Our project was to enhance the Cherry Creek High School L.E.G.O.S. Club and grow support for the activities of Special Olympics and Project Unify. Although the target was to increase participation from 23 to 50 individuals, over 100 new students signed up with support for the club with 54 joining as active, working members who attend bi-weekly meetings. In addition, students were recruited from two additional schools to take part in the events.

Last year, the fall season consisted of 15 athletes practicing with Unified Partners from the high school. This year, the season exploded to include 40 athletes and over 15 partners. It also brought in the new Unified and Varsity Cheer team from the high school, adding an additional seven athletes and 10 partners at the finale game, along with 6 firefighters from the local community to play unified basketball with the athletes.”

From Areen Abusweilem and Raya Al Halaby:
“We found that many students, teachers and parents are unaware of Special Olympics or the abilities of our athletes, they used to have a wrong vision of people with intellectual disabilities and thought that they were people whom you should feel sorry for or be afraid of, so we mainly thought that we have to change this and realize how great our athletes are.

Mainly our program revolves around changing the attitude of students by students, who will also change their teachers and parents, so we founded Special Olympics supporting student club named “Flame of Unity” in 3 schools where the club composes of 1 teacher and 10 students in each school. These students come up with activities and ideas to achieve our targets and change their friends and schoolmates. Also our club emphasizes playing on unified teams.”

Listen to a great song created by the Special Olympics Jordan Team:

From Alvaro Delacruz and Marina Cabrera:
“Our project will be implemented in three middle schools for children with and without disability ages 12 to 17 years of age. Two will be held at the Capital (Asuncion) and the last event to be held at the Central region subprogram. We will engage youth through Unified Sports and recreational activities aimed at recruiting new youth into Special Olympics. We will involve youth as volunteers acting as referees, and organizing sports areas. In the area of recreation, youth will be involved as promoters of events such as watching movies at their school, holding school parties that involve the community and other youth.

Through our project, we will: execute Unified Sports tournaments in 3 different schools; promote leadership by holding workshops; promote volunteering by meeting with youth in schools; create a database containing all youth to provide needed follow-up; encourage teachers to actively participate in this initiative by awarding the classroom that has achieved the most success in the allotted time frame. We believe that the youth activation activities are an important awareness campaign where we can visualize youth impact in joint activities with other youth of a similar age with an intellectual disability.”

South Africa:
From Seani Mulamu and Mutshidzi Mufamadi:
“For our project, the main target was to reach mainstream youth and to engage them in activities with Special Olympics athletes, but where possible, have the youth involved in every aspect of the event including the organizing. Special Olympics South Africa was able to reach 220 new Unified partners, create awareness amongst over 4,000 learners, involve 119 new teachers and recruit 140 new Special Olympics athletes.

We took a fairly stepped approach in that Special Olympics was first introduced and this was followed up a by a proposed Unified sports day. Once this proposal was accepted, as many learners as possible were orientated on Special Olympics and then partners took part in a Unified sports day. In all cases, either the event itself or a gathering post the event was used to explain more about Special Olympics, our athletes, our founder and the importance of tolerance, acceptance and respect. In this way, teachers that were involved in the project could see the benefit to the mainstream learners and how Special Olympics South Africa is helping them to teach their scholars a component of the compulsory subject called Life Orientation.”

From Filip Paunovic and Luka Kurcubic:
“On the day 25th of November, we held two fantastic and inspiring events in the city of Krusevac.  It all started in the local special school in the morning, when 100 young students with and without ID showed up with their teachers. The first event was a seminar where we shared our experiences as Youth Leaders. Reactions from the Youth were incredible, but also, the reactions from their teachers. The moment we finished with our story, hands were rising up and numerous questions were asked, showing a great interest from the Youth in what was presented to them, asking how they can get involved further. After a short break, we took the role of coaches and referees. Everyone took part in mixed Unified Sports teams, which proved the overall idea that we can all engage together, with no differences. It was amazing to see all those young people eagerly waiting for their friends to finish their games so that they can try it themselves. Overall both events ended with great success, with an outcome of all the youth wanting to continue and get involved in the activities. But not only the youth, teachers were more than interested also, approaching us with questions and ideas on how we can make new events to strengthen the idea of cooperation.”

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels: