How I Found My Voice

We’re continuing with our amazing stories from the new book, Stand Up! 75 Young Activists who Rock the World and How You Can Too from John Schlimm. You can read all about the book here.

How I Found My Voice, by Susie Doyens

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 2.21.48 PMI was born with Down syndrome. It is typical for people with Down syndrome to have intellectual disabilities and sort of look alike.

Most of my friends with Down syndrome are outgoing. They talk a lot and mix well with other people. I’m not naturally as outgoing or comfortable looking at other people or talking with them.

I have always been scared and shy. I used to never really talk. Ever. I wrote notes instead. People would talk to me and it made me feel panicky and uncomfortable. I never looked at people’s faces, only their shoes. I was afraid if I said something wrong, people would laugh at me.

Special Olympics came into my life when I was eight years old. My swimming teacher, Emily, got me into my first Special Olympics competition. My whole class came to watch me compete. I was very proud to have so many people cheer for me. After that, I started doing many different sports. I noticed that I was good at them and that confidence helped me to do even better.

My favorite sport is golf. I love golf. I play Special Olympics Unified Sports golf. Unified Sports is when a Special Olympics athlete and a non-Special Olympics athlete (called a Unified Partner) play on the same team. My Unified Partner is Tom. We’ve won many medals. He is very supportive and very sweet. Tom makes me laugh.

But my biggest accomplishment in Special Olympics was when I became a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger. A Global Messenger is an athlete who is trained to give speeches about their experiences with Special Olympics. My area director asked me to become one because she thought I would be good at it. Everybody wondered if I could do it, because I still didn’t talk much.

My first year, I gave 50 speeches! The audiences gave me standing ovations and I loved it. I have had the chance to speak about Special Olympics to many, many people. Sometimes, I speak to thousands of people at a time and I’ve now given more than 300 speeches and hope to keep doing more.

One of my first speeches was to a two-day gathering of Shopko store employees, which included a golf outing that took place on nine different golf courses. There were 1,500 people in the audience. The production director was so afraid that I could not do it that he went to the CEO and president of Special Olympics Illinois and my parents, telling them that he was afraid I would ruin the program. My parents told him not to worry.

When the time came, I marched up on stage. There were two huge screens on either side of me, and I had to stand on a box because I was too short to see over the podium without it. Standing on the box is what made me really nervous, not the speech. When I finished, the audience gave me a two-minute standing ovation! The director told us all that he was so amazed. He was so proud of me and let me know just how good he thought I was.

Check out Stand Up! to read the rest of Susie’s story.

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Advocating Through Friendship

Special Olympics youth and athlete leaders were recently featured in a new book called Stand Up! 75 Young Activists who Rock the World and How You Can Too from John Schlimm. You can read all about the full book here, but we also wanted to share some of the amazing Special Olympics stories featured in the book. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to read these inspiring stories of youth changing the world through Special Olympics. And if you’re interested, you can purchase Stand Up! online.

Our first amazing story comes from youth leaders Danielle Liebl and Kaitlyn Smith… a story of true friendship! This is just a small preview, so make sure to check out the book for the full story! 

Kaitlyn & DanielleThe summer of 2010 is a summer that will always be remembered by the both of us. It was a summer of growth, new beginnings and cherished memories, but most importantly, it was the summer our lives intersected for the first time. That summer, Special Olympics hosted the 2010 National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha, Nebraska which both of us attended.

Danielle was an intern while Kaitlyn participated as a Unified Partner with her friend Kathleen. We briefly met at the summit when Danielle went up to Kaitlyn’s Partner, Kathleen, to wish her a happy birthday. Little did we know that we had each just met a lifelong friend. Later that year, Kaitlyn joined Special Olympics’ National Youth Activation Committee, in which Danielle was already a member. At our first meeting in Washington, D.C., we instantly bonded over our uncontrollable laughter, similar sarcasm and sense of humor.

Our friendship was growing, and our friendship meant the world to the both of us. The comfort to be ourselves when we were around each other was proof that we were perfect friends. We never felt compelled to try to impress anyone or be anything we weren’t. There was comfort in having conversations about anything, from schoolwork to philosophy.

There was one conversation in particular that has stuck with both of us and has really helped define our friendship. While in Florida attending a Special Olympics marketing and communications meeting, we found ourselves awake at one o’clock in the morning discussing our friendship and the impact it has had. After a lengthy conversation, we came to the realization that not once in our friendship had we ever looked at one another as an “athlete” or a “Partner.” That simply did not matter.

Over time, we came to realize that the friendship we had wasn’t just a normal friendship—it was something much more special. We both had the same ambitions in Special Olympics, similar personalities and we shared a goal to change the world. We were both on the same path, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that our friendship would help us support and guide each other in our work for this very special organization.

We realized that our friendship was not one that average youth got to experience very often. It was one that gave us hope on so many levels; not only did it give us hope in our everyday lives, but it also gave us hope for the future. Throughout our friendship, we realized that we wanted nothing more than for all youth to have the friendship that we have—one where friends don’t see the limits of each other, but rather where they see each other’s full potential.

We wanted to set an example for those around us, and Special Olympics gave us the perfect way to do it. When we first started our advocacy work, we barely realized we were doing it. We did nothing more than make our perfectly normal friendship visible to others.

In the beginning, we didn’t realize the impact it was having on others until the staff at Special Olympics brought it to our attention. Before we knew it, we were being asked to talk about our unique friendship to others in the Special Olympics community, and then to the broader community. We took on a new leadership role as we were now being leaders who set an example for a new way of thinking and living. We were the examples of how to live a unified life. Through our unified friendship that was developed out of Special Olympics, we discovered one of the most powerful ways of activism. Advocacy does not need to be an out-loud verbal expression that you proclaim to a crowd of people. Rather, we discovered that true advocates are the ones who pave a path to a way of life that is often at first unknown or mysterious to others, but ultimately leads to an incredible and fulfilling life. For us, something as simple as our friendship led us to pave this path on which we hope more youth will travel.

* Editor’s note: if you liked this story, take a look at the Discussion Guide that provides great questions to generate discussion in the classroom around this story.

Inclusive Youth Leadership in Action – Share, Inspire and Activate!

During the week of September 2nd to September 5th 2013, Special Olympics Project UNIFY® youth leaders shared their experiences, insights and strategies with students, educators, parents and the community using social media. Student Voice, a recent initiative formed to activate the student voice through building community and opportunity, provided Special Olympics the opportunity to educate their supporters about the power of our work. Student Voice hosted a Twitter Chat and a Google+ Hangout on the topic of Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

Youth Leaders participated as panelists on a Google+ Hangout and decided to co-create a Memory Sheet to reflect on the experience. Each leader shared his or her Special Olympics sports involvement, three insights from the conversation and a quote of wisdom for us to consider!

Connor MooreConnor

I participate in Track and Field (Coach), Long Distance Running (Coach/Mentor), and Bowling (Unified Partner).

  • Unexpected obstacles often offer the opportunity to improve the end result
  • An inclusive discussion about inclusive leadership can produce amazing results
  • Effective communication is a relatable message – whether that be through a story or a joke.

Without inclusive youth leadership, a movement isn’t moving anywhere soon.” – Connor Moore, Special Olympics Delaware

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Kabir Robinson

I play unified soccer.

  • I like the way partners on the YAC [Youth Activation Committee] help each other.
  • I like the way Lindsey and Erin work together.
  • I like it that Erin draws pictures to express her feelings in public.

I love public speaker because I want to see new people who don’t know about Unified Sports.” – Kabir Robinson, Special Olympics Washington 

Karina Vargas-Silva

I participate in basketball, and Unified soccer.Karina

  • I believe that we all have something to give, whether it’s our time, our affection, or our thoughts, and I encourage you all to remember to give.
  • We can all learn from each other despite our abilities or disabilities, we all have something that we can share with someone else.
  • Teamwork is very helpful, and sometimes you can achieve more when you work together.

The only way you can truly impact someone’s life is by opening up and letting them impact yours.” – Karina Vargas-Silva, Special Olympics Washington

Erin

Erin Meyer

I participate in Soccer and Track.

  • Inclusive youth leaders work hard and work together.
  • Inclusive youth leaders do good things.
  • Inclusive youth leaders make new friends.

Project UNIFY is fun because you work with more people.” – Erin Meyer, Special Olympics New Jersey

Lindsey Conlan

I am a volunteer at track and field and soccer events.

  • IMG_1380It is imperative that we allot time and provide opportunities for everyone to share their opinions and ideas in their own ways so that all voices can be heard.
  • Youth are just as powerful as adults! With the right amount of support from administration, youth can have a huge impact on their peers.
  • Project UNIFY should be used as a means to create lasting friendships that extend past the playing field.

A call to action: If you have the opportunity to volunteer at a Special Olympics event, take it one step further. Keep in touch with at least one athlete via social media, going out to eat, or simply cheering for that athlete at their next competition. This type of action will continue to promote the core idea of Project Unify after the games are over.” – Lindsey Conlan, Special Olympics New Jersey

Kelsey Foster

I participate in Unified Basketball and I help train the Athletes for all the competitions.

  • 230x300_KelseyFosterWhole school inclusion makes everyone feel valued.
  • Everyone has a talent that can be used to implicate whole school inclusion.
  • End-the-R-Word Campaigns are great ways to get everyone involved.

Being a part of Project UNIFY is the best thing in the world. It makes you feel appreciated and valued, you meet wonderful friends, and it gives you  the chance to make a positive difference in the world.” – Kelsey Foster, Special Olympics South Carolina. 

We encourage you to learn more from these youth leaders by watching the Google+ Hangout!