Friendship through Golf

The following post comes from Michael H, a High School junior and Unified Partner. Michael and Jason, a Special Olympics athlete, recently competed in the Unified Sports division of the Special Olympics North America Golf Invitational Tournament.

I have had some experience in volunteering in the past.  My mom has always encouraged (okay, pressured) me to do different forms of volunteering, but my experience with the Unified Partners and Special Olympics has been a wholly different experience.

I first joined the program because an email had been forwarded to all fall sports athletes looking for volunteers.  At the time, I was participating in the off-season baseball camps at my high school.  When my mom asked if I was interested in playing golf as a volunteer – I replied yes, because I love golf and I thought it would be a really good experience to help.

I really had no idea what to expect from the program as I had never heard of the program or spoken with anyone who had participated before.  I showed up at the first practice at the golf course certain that I would not know a soul.  While still in the parking lot unloading my clubs, I recognized a kid from my grade named Jason.  I had recognized Jason from my freshman year Health/PE class and he often sat at the same lunch table with me and my friends, but quite honestly, we really did not know each other.  I soon found out that Jason was one of the athletes looking for a partner and we started our partnership on the golf course that day.

We have partnered in multiple tournaments including the National Special Olympics Golf Tournament in Phoenix last month where we won the silver medal in our flight.

In the beginning, had anyone asked why, I would have said I was volunteering to help others.  Over a year later, I can honestly say, the experience with the Unified Partners Special Olympics has ultimately helped me.  The people in the program – from our director, our coach, Jason’s family and all of the athletes and volunteers I have met – have been so incredible.

Through my stories about the experience, I have recently recruited some friends to join me in the program. I have enjoyed the practices, the tournaments and the special events (like our recent Arizona Special Olympics Breakfast of Champions)…but seeing the smile on Jason’s face and knowing he too is enjoying himself is the best part of it all.

When my mom talked about how volunteering was good for the soul, I always assumed it was one of her silly attempts to get me to do something I did not really want to do.  Now I can truly relate to Booker T. Washington’s famous quote: “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else”.

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Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

This past weekend, our National Youth Activation Committee members were here in Washington, DC for the bi-annual National YAC meeting! 19 youth leaders, along with 14 mentors from their local state Special Olympics Programs, came together from around the country to brainstorm ideas and plan for a great year of projects and activities.

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As always – I was blown away by these amazing and inspiring youth leaders who help catapult our movement of acceptance and respect into schools and towns across the country. While there were so many examples of their incredible leadership throughout the weekend, I had to share the results of one particular activity during a professional development session.

In the activity, each National YAC member was asked to develop a quote that expressed their ideas, thoughts, values, feelings or attitudes about Special Olympics, friends, family and/or courage.

The results are amazing. These young people are truly the leaders of today… but they will most certainly be the leaders of the future as well.

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“Special Olympics isn’t just for people with disabilities… Special Olympics has helped me find my voice, build my confidence and identify my passion.”
Kaitlyn Smith, Colorado

“Stop watching every step you take. Close your eyes and let the world surprise you.”
Shelby Lynne Dial, Wyoming

“Everyone can help create change; you just have to believe in yourself.”
Heather Glaser, Wyoming

“Let the way you walk and talk exemplify who you truly are.”
Daniel Fink, Washington

“Leaders don’t follow the path of the past; leaders make their own path. If they are a true leader, no matter the obstacles, they will prevail.”
Dallas Lopez, Texas

“Everyday a new challenge awaits, it’s up to us to find the right path.”
Brady Platt, South Carolina

“Our memories define us: every laugh, every kiss, every tear is a part of who we are. So let’s strive to become better people starting with our memories.”
Rachel Alm, Hawaii

“I am nothing without my Special Olympics family – they encourage and inspire me to be better.”
Kelsey Foster, South Carolina

“Life with your three musketeers always makes you happy.”
James Kweon, Idaho

“Change should be respected, not hated.”
Bernice Higa-French, Hawaii

“Each of us is created with a seed deep within. When you embrace the sunshine of all circumstances and be open to the shower of others’ influence, only then will a beautiful flower grow that will be a gift to the world.”
Danielle Liebl, Minnesota

“There are four words on the Special Olympics medal: skill, courage, sharing and joy. Skill is the least important because the other three are what win you the gold.”
Jordan Schubert, Philadelphia

“I want to live in a world where madness is meditated, nonsense is valued, challenges are embraced and fostering creativity and imagination is our greatest objective.”
Evan Heller, Massachusetts

“Life as a star is like reaching a certain goal. Our favorite YAC family is like a huge star – above and beyond.”
Tanealya Hueth, Montana

Strengths-Based Social Inclusion

Written by Jerry Holy, Project UNIFY Coordinator; Sarah Wright, Senior Manager, Education Program Development; and Terry Pickeral, Senior Educational Consultant.

My personal strengths development helped me understand what I can do and what I am capable of. In my position of Coordinator, I have certain areas of Administration Operations, Resource Management and Communications that I work in. In each of these three areas, each of my five strengths are actively involved, helping me reach a higher and inclusive level among my colleagues. I have learned that each of my strengths has given me a new perspective on my abilities within the Project UNIFY Team. This perspective has shown me that I am capable of anything within the Project UNIFY Team.  It has also shown me that there are many opportunities within the Project UNIFY Team available to me. Those opportunities have allowed me to me a valuable team member in as well as outside of my organization. Jerry Holy

Jerry’s positive experiences in discovering and using his strengths reflect Special Olympics Project UNIFY commitment to strengths-based development.  Strengths-Based development helps youth and adults identify ways they naturally think, feel and behave.  These feelings and actions are defined as talents and directly align with the mission of Special Olympics, which states that Special Olympics provides an opportunity for “…the sharing of gifts, skills and friendships…”

Individual talents are important for each of us to build upon and use to contribute as a member of a team.  Teams should build on the strengths of all members to develop a more effective organization. Isn’t that what we learn in little league and school sports?  Even in the Olympics, individuals are trying to better themselves while representing an entire country.

We have translated this philosophy into deliberate practice. One of the tools Project UNIFY uses to identify talents is the GALLUP Clifton StrengthsExplorer and Quest that identifies each person’s talents.  Using a survey and review, individuals discover their top talents and how those talents play into everything they do.  These talents are also used in group settings to develop and improve relationships with others by understanding their talents. This type of activity can prove enlightening and useful in a variety of settings.

Project UNIFY is committed to social inclusion, and the focus on strengths is a big part of it.  Social inclusion is the belief that everyone can learn, engage and be successful in a group that focuses on everyone’s talents.  By Jerry understanding his strengths, he can envision his role in the team, and others can see how he enhances the entire group, and the value he provides. Social inclusion ensures fairness and equity so that all members of a group are equally engaged and empowered to contribute to the organization.

As schools understand our talents and become more socially inclusive, we feel safe, helped and engaged.  That results in feeling better about ourselves and having more positive attitudes about others. In an Oregon high school, students with and without disabilities who were part of a Partner’s Club utilized their strengths to work together to complete real-life tasks in their school community, which included holding a canned food drive.

Think how successful a school will be if it:

  1. sees students and adults by their strengths rather than their challenges,
  2. encourages us to share our strengths with others and
  3. creates classroom activities that build on our talents.

Think how great it would be if every student could reflect on their school experience in the same way that Jerry has reflected on his work with PU. How heartening would it be to hear about teachers being given support around their strengths rather than vilified for weaknesses?

The experiences Jerry expressed as an effective team member show the benefits of strength-based development and the reason Project UNIFY focuses on these strategies to create socially inclusive schools.