Making an Impact During Summer Vacation

This blog is written by Tanealya Hueth, a member of the National Youth Activation Committee, and an acvtive volunteer in her community in Montana. Tanealya shares some insigtht on how to avoid becoming detached from quality work during the summer. Just because school is out, doesn’t mean we have to be!

School is out and summer vacation has begun. This does not mean as a youth leader the impact that you have has to stop. Last summer, I had the opportunity to go to Greece and attend the National Youth Activation Summit. At this conference, we made an impact on others by discussions and workshops that helped each of us grow and become better leaders.

So the question is, “What can you do during summer vacation, as a youth leader, to make an impact?” Youth volunteering, being a mentor, helping in the community, or even getting others involved can make an impact. It is easy to see the impact of your actions thought these activities and this is even a fun way to spend your summer.

Where can you volunteer? First look for places to Volunteer in your community. Lots of places are looking for volunteers. Try your local Special Olympics office, youth camps, church, community garden, food banks, or local senior citizen centers. Also, you can look for places where you have an opportunity to work with young people with or without disabilities. As a leader you make an impact on others by being a role model or getting others involved.

Being a mentor is a great way to make an impact. Some mentoring programs are as easy as just being a friend to a child who needs one. Statistics show that kids who are mentored succeed greatly. Some of those statics are:

  • 58%  improved their school performance
  • 65% showed higher levels of self-confidence
  • 55% had a better attitude toward others and school

Start a website for teens by teens. Offer information and support for teens. Ask a local community service to host it for you.  Have a list of community services you can offer as referrals to kids in trouble or who are just lonely and need something to do during the summer. Put up helpful and upbeat articles of interest to other teens. Provide quizzes and puzzles. Make it a place other teens will want to come to for positive, encouraging, and supportive information and resources.

Do you love outdoor sports? Volunteer to coach your local Special Olympics team or play in a Unified Sports league. Or, do a little research and see if you have an Outdoor Education Center or Park Program in your area. Often these Centers offer programs for people with special needs and they nearly always need volunteers to help. What could be better than helping someone experience the joy of playing a sport.

Another option is to find out if there is a wheelchair sports program in your community. There are a lot of fine athletes who are confined to wheelchairs, still active and very competitive. Besides basketball, some wheelchair sports groups play rugby, hockey, tennis and softball. Get some friends together and challenge them to a game. You might be surprised who wins!

Bring some joy to a senior citizens facility. Not all senior citizens facilities are the same. They vary from having active seniors to bed-ridden individuals. But everybody has the same need – to know someone else cares. Why not throw a party for some folks in such a facility? It can be as simple as just bringing in some balloons and visiting with people (don’t worry about what to say – most of them will be happy to do the talking!). Or it can be as elaborate as performing a “show” for them. Gather some of your Special Olympics friends who can play music, sing, do card tricks, read poetry or tell stories – put it all together and make some people happy! They’ll talk about it for weeks.

If you or someone you know has a summer birthday, throw a birthday party but instead of gifts ask people to make a contribution to Special Olympics or another cause. Better yet, gather friends with birthdays in the same month and see how much you can raise!

These are just a few of the many ways that you canmake an impact as a youth leader during your summer vacation. Look around your community and talk to others about ways to volunteer. Don’t forget to get your friends involved. Be a role model and have fun with whatever you decide to do.

“If you have heart and determination in your life, then nothing can get in the way of your dreams!” ~Author Unknown


A Bright Future

With the school year finally coming to an end, we wanted to share an inspiring speech to graduating seniors from college student Haylie Bernacki. Her advice to students: your involvement with Project UNIFY and SO College has prepared you for a bright and impactful future.

As classes end and summer begins, we all dream about our summer plans; not a care in the world…but not this summer. Not this year. This year we leave behind four years of our life, looking towards the future to start anew.

You may ask us if we are scared, anxious, or even intimated by what lies ahead. But I can tell you with confidence, assurance, and pride that we have the tools it takes to make our way in this world. We have been given the opportunity to see ourselves in a new light, the opportunity to build lasting relationships, the opportunity to say we were a part of something greater.

As we look back on our four years, we have learned to look at people for their abilities, that we are more similar than different; we have learned the power of a smile. There will be times in our life when the road seems unclear, but that will not faze us. How could it? We have had the best teachers in the world.

  • Our teachers see an obstacle and do not back down; they face it with determination and will.
  • Our teachers come with joy in their hearts and a smile on their face.
  • Our teachers have taught us to see life as a gift.
  • Our teachers show us that teamwork can make all the difference.
  • Our teachers accept everyone, love everyone, and encourage everyone to do their own individual best.
  • Our teachers prove that it is not important who wins, but the bravery in the attempt is what counts.

Our teachers are Special Olympics Athletes.

Without Special Olympics College in our lives, we would have not been able to learn from the best. We would have not been able to gain the wisdom the athletes had to offer. I can say with confidence that without Special Olympics College, we would not be the people we are today.

Today we can enter the world with the ability to see the goodness in life. We can enter the work force and see our co-workers for their abilities and the strengths they provide. We can enter graduate school with a better understanding of how we can make a difference.

We graduate today with a better understanding of life, what truly matters, and where we are headed.

Making a Difference, in One Way or Another

David Osher is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research and an international expert on school climate, social emotional learning, and student support. Below David shares an interesting perspective about making a difference through school climate.


Schools are communities where everyone’s actions affect others.  So the question is not whether we make a difference, but whether the difference is positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, miniscule or large.

Schools are communities, and each of us is a member of that community. Community can be healthy or unhealthy.  Schools can make every last person feel:

  • safe (both emotionally and physically)
  • supported by others who have their back
  • included
  • valued by all and even cherished by some
  • respected for who they are
  • visible
  • invited or expected to contribute

Or the school community can make some members feel:

  • unsafe
  • vulnerable
  • excluded
  • unappreciated
  • rejected
  • invisible
  • uninvited or expected to observe not act.

What you do can affect each of these dimensions. 

Safety provides an example.  One thing you can do to help others feel safe and diminish their feelings of vulnerably is to think about how they feel and avoid things that embarrass them or make them feel exposed.  For example, students in a focus group told me how important it was for teachers to find out what embarrasses every one of their students and to avoid doing it.

You can also stand up when others are being victimized or teased or placed at risk—whether as individuals or as members of a group, and whether they are students or adults. When you stand by silently when someone uses the R word, bashes youth who are GLBT, or says derogatory things about people because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic background or their looks and abilities, you may reinforce prejudiced behavior or contribute to others feeling vulnerable.

Individual acts are important, but they don’t directly reach out to all members of the school community.  Whether you are a student, a staff member, a family member, or a member of the greater community you can support policies, programs, and practices that ensure everyone feels safe, supported, included, valued, respected, visible, and expected to contribute.  For example in the case of safety, schools can:

  • Survey students anonymously to see if students feel safe and supported; disaggregate the data to see particular groups of students that feel less safe or supported; use this data to identify needs and plan interventions; and treat this information seriously – just like that treat standardized test scores.  You can promote the use of these surveys, take them seriously, and participate in planning that is based upon these surveys. For information about how to create, analyze, report out, and use surveys go to .
  • Implement programs and practices that enable students and adults to learn to understand each other and empathize with other people.  Examples of this include social emotional learning (SEL) programs that help students learn to manage their emotions and handle relations in a productive manner. Some of these programs include class meetings, which can be good ways of including everyone and giving all students a voice. Other programs use literature, history, and service learning. A good place to find out about these programs is . A good place to see them in action is
  • Support activities that bring people together such as gay straight alliances, Project UNIFY, and inclusive approaches to service learning that are designed to invite and support, not only the inclusion, but also the engagement of all members of the school community.

So there are many things you do and can do, both as individuals and as members of the school community.  Ideally, each of us will do both — with intentionality, persistence, and at a magnitude that will make a big difference.

Grandview High School CO Unified Basketball Team

At Grandview High School Colorado, basketball has always been popular, but over the past two years the program has exploded. However, this basketball team is a little bit different than a typical high school basketball team, it is much more powerful…this team is Unified.

The Unified Basketball team at Grandview High School has players with and without intellectual disabilities that play side by side. The teammates learn from one another, practice and together perform just like any other sports team. During the first year the program had quite a few participants, but in just one short year the team has doubled in size.

At the end of the season, partners on the team were asked to reflect on their experience with the team and write an essay. What came from these essays was much more love than anyone had ever felt prior to the team.

 “Two years ago, I would walk by Adam in the hallways and smile. But he was just another face. Now when I walk by in the hallways he always gives me a hug no matter what. He isn’t just a face anymore. He is a teammate- a teammate with incredible talent and personality” says Aly Padgett.

The team became an escape from the hectic schedules or stresses faced by the students. Practice and games were a place that everyone could let go, be themselves, and have fun. Bobby Klein said “Just coming to practice made my day better, and because I am a junior, I am thankful to have the possibility to play on the Unified Basketball team next year Playing on the team this year was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.”

As the season progressed and relationships formed, it seemed that it was not just about basketball anymore, but life. The students broke out of their shells and learned about basketball and life. Many students shared how this experience taught them life lessons and skills they might not have ever learned if not for their teammates and the incredible opportunity to become friends with them.  Jordan Schlehuber was one of the students who recognized this: “So I guess the most important thing I learned really isn’t that much about sports; it’s more about life and the kind of person I really want to be.”

 “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how fun and all the great moments you create when you’re out there with each other.” –Jackson Peitzmeier

“To say the least my experience with Unified Basketball has been a life changing one.” 

The program started out with high hopes and a few participants and has now touched the lives of so many; athletes, partners, parents, coaches, and staff. It seems safe to say that this program is changing many people’s perspectives and lives, and will continue to do more as the program grows in the years to come.