Basketball = Fun + Friendship

The following blog post comes from Garret Lee, a Special Olympics Colorado volunteer & student at the University of Denver. 

Red Shirt Rookies

The past 5 weeks, I have had the privilege to be the lead volunteer for the Red Shirt Rookies* program at Summit Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District. I came into Summit with plans to implement a nearly identical program to that of my Unified Sports team at Heritage High School, but quickly learned that the Red Shirt Rookies program was different. In fact, all levels of Project Unify are different, and each school is unique, which is part of the reason the program is so powerful.

While at first, the large number of Rookies was hard to manage, my group of volunteers and I grew to love the program’s flexibility. No matter what activities we had the athletes and partners do, they approached it with a smile on their face. Obviously, shooting the basketball was most of the kids’ favorite part. It was my favorite too, because I saw the most improvement. Seeing the smiles on kids’ faces that could barely shoot the ball but learned to make a basket was unforgettable.

While observing the skill development was exciting, the most inspirational part of the program for me was watching the growth in the children involved. At first, it was very apparent that many of the special needs athletes were uncomfortable around the partners, and the partners weren’t too open to be friends with the athletes. However as time went on, we saw friendships develop across the boundaries simply through passing a basketball… that was incredible. By the final cheer on the last practice, it was very apparent that many of these boundaries between the Rookies had been broken down and all of the kids felt comfortable around each other. It is inspiring to see that these children will soon be our leaders, and they will be doing it together. All of my volunteers and I are excited to see the upcoming boundaries that can be broken down in the spring, when this group of amazing Red Shirt Rookies hit the soccer pitch.

*Red Shirt Rookies is an after school basketball skills program for students with and without intellectual disabilities in grades K – 5. The young students work with local volunteers to practice their basketball skills and have fun getting to know their peers.

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Presenting at the Department of Education

photoTwo weeks ago Special Olympics Project UNIFY had a meeting with the U.S. Department of Education, who has continued to support Project UNIFY for the past four years.  Each year we have a meeting with them to show what we have been doing and to demonstrate that Project UNIFY is truly making a difference across the country.  At this meeting, we had our University of Massachusetts Boston evaluation team there to present statistics from the year that provided research-based data.

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In addition to sharing data on Project UNIFY, three youth leaders joined us in order to give the anecdotal proof that Project UNIFY is truly making a difference in our schools and communities. Read below to meet the three youth and learn more about their topics while speaking at the Department of Education:

Clement Coulson: The opportunity Project UNIFY gave him to be a youth leader and how he takes those skills and uses them in other organizations.

Click photo to read Clement's comments.

Click photo to read Clement’s comments.

Rachel Ward: Her experience at the Global Youth Activation Summit, which took place a few weeks ago at the World Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, and what it meant to her to be a leader within it and also how other countries implement Project UNIFY in contrast to the United States.

Click photo to read Rachel's comments.

Click photo to read Rachel’s comments.

Samantha Huffman: What comes from inclusive experiences in school and how Project UNIFY has not only been life changing for her, but also many other youth.

Click on photo to read Samantha's comments.

Click on photo to read Samantha’s comments.

The Power to Change

In honor of tomorrow’s Spread the Word to End the Word annual day of awareness, read a powerful story from Jennifer Marcello of Special Olympics Illinois. Everyday, we have the power to change attitudes and actions towards people with intellectual disabilities. 

STW2013Logo_With_DateI recently had an experience and wanted to share it with you. I was meeting with a vendor trying to put together items for our Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. This is a vendor that has been a friend to Special Olympics Illinois and tries to provide quality items at low cost pricing. He understands the concept behind our Spread the Word campaign and is helping to design a “Stomp the R-word” theme that we will be using. During our conversations he slipped and said the word “retarded”.  Before I could start the education process that instantaneously happens upon hearing that word, he caught himself, and could not be more apologetic.  We had a brief conversation about the campaign, its purpose, and exactly why the campaign was so important and then moved on with the remainder of our previous conversation.

I received this email later that evening:

Hi Jen,

It was great to see you today and I appreciate the opportunity to provide you with the products for the 2013 “Stomp the R-Word” day.  So I was feeling bad today about my slip up.  Really bad.  I wondered how often in my life I’ve made ignorant remarks and not known or even cared to wonder about the ramifications of my words.  I try to watch what I say and usually can.  Today got me thinking.  Here I am sitting in a conference room with Jen Marcello going over products that will all say STOMP the R-WORD and I said “retarded”.   I felt like such a hypocrite and I realized that I usually do an ok job of watching what I say, but a very poor job of helping others watch what they say.  That word (along with others I don’t care for) are used all the time around our office.

Well, as soon as I got back to the office I gathered everyone together and made an office rule.  Anyone who uses the words “retard, retarded”, and I named some others – will have to donate $250 to Special Olympics.  If they don’t have the money, they will volunteer a weekend and our company will donate the money.  Everyone is on board… So I’m spreading the word to end the word today.

In this day and age when so many people talk the talk, this gentleman and this company have decided to walk the walk.  The have truly “bought in” to the mission of the campaign and all we do at Special Olympics.  I share this story not to make him feel bad for his remark, but to show that what we do does make an impact on others.