Generation #StandUp!

COVER - Stand Up! by John SchlimmEarly on in every generation there comes a defining moment by which those young people are judged and remembered for the ages. Much has been said and written—not always very flattering or positive—about the young people today, but little of it has been expressed by those young people themselves . . . until now.

A little over a year ago, I sought out 75 of the world’s most dynamic and amazing young activists, some of whom started their work as early as three years old and many have launched their own nonprofits and grassroots missions around the globe. I asked them to answer one simple question: What do you stand up for and why?

The resulting book—Stand Up!: 75 Young Activists Who Rock the World, And How You Can, Too!—is a rare glimpse into the imagination, creativity, inspiration, and sheer determination that propel this new generation of leaders ever forward. For the first time, the world gets to see a comprehensive portrait of the global youth movement, and how these young women and men are bringing their own brand of savvy compassion, hard work, and unstoppable courage to the crossroads of social entrepreneurship and activism.

Through the unique stories they have written, these young people have provided the blueprint and enduring calls-to-action through which they are making the world a better place for all living beings and the planet.

Five of these Stand Up! trailblazers have dedicated themselves to the iconic mission of Special Olympics:

  • In “How I Found My Voice,” Susie Doyens, a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger with Down Syndrome, tells how she now leaves everyone else speechless as she travels the country, delivering speeches, and even starred in a national commercial to bring attention to the work Special Olympics is doing with people who have Down syndrome and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • In “Social Justice for All!,” Samantha Huffman, a Unified Partner and a former member of the National Youth Activation Committee for Special Olympics Project UNIFY, describes how she learned that her mission in life is to advocate for social justice for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and others.
  • In “Advocating Through Friendship,” Danielle Liebl and Kaitlyn Smith, Special Olympics youth leaders, write about how they are using their unique friendship to spread the inspiring message of Special Olympics.
  • And, in “A Life Worth Living,” Frank Stephens, a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger and advocate for the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign, poignantly recalls how he stood up to one of the world’s most famous political commentators when she referred to President Barack Obama by using the r-word. Frank fired back with a public letter to her that was read by more than two and a half million people in just the first 24-hours after it was posted, and nearly four million in the first month.

All the stories in Stand Up!, at their core, are about embracing compassion by using life’s many gifts and challenges to help others and the planet to move forward. The young activists in Stand Up! will take you on awesome adventures—from the world’s highest mountain peak to the rainforest; a ship at sea to a city full of puppets; digging in tasty school gardens to rocking the classroom in places like Africa, Pakistan, India, Peru, Colombia, Afghanistan and the U.S.; trick-or-treating with a mini Darth Vader to an iconic lemonade stand; building fresh water wells and soccer fields in developing nations to painting a unity mural and sleeping in a cardboard box in the snow; saving cheetahs, sea turtles and farm animals to honoring heroic soldiers; and so many other special missions of Olympic-sized proportions.

For me as a Generation-X writer, educator, and activist, Stand Up! is a book I was born to create—an extraordinary opportunity to extend my hand to another generation. Stand Up! is my gift and nod of admiration to the young people of today.

And while it is important to spotlight young people doing incredible things, it’s just as important for me and the Stand Up! story contributors to reach out to those young people, and others, across this planet who are feeling hopeless, confused, scared, and worthless—to those who have never been told that they, too, have gifts and talents.

To them, we say, You have so many gifts, you have so many talents! Discover what they are, and then stand up and rock this world with all you’ve got!

For more Stand Up! resources for teachers, parents, students, community groups, book clubs, and others, please refer to the Stand Up! Discussion Guide.

This guest post was written by John Schlimm, a Harvard-trained educator, activist, and the international award-winning author of numerous books. Copies of Stand Up!: 75 Young Activists Who Rock the World, And How You Can, Too! can be purchased online.

Experiencing Joy

Like many students, Morgan got to college and was ready to get more involved with her community. She began volunteering with Special Olympics Missouri through her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, and is now an active and engaged leader in the Special Olympics Movement.   

I had not been very involved with Special Olympics until I came to college.

I joined Alpha Sigma Alpha at Missouri Western State University, and one of our national philanthropies is Special Olympics. So, I started going to events and really enjoyed it. Seeing these wonderful people being so empowered and proud of themselves was awesome. Soon, I started to get more involved. I helped coach a middle school track team, I was on the Games Management Team for the Northwest area basketball tournament and the Games Management Team for the Spring Games here.

One of my very favorite memories of Special Olympics is from the Opening Ceremony at the basketball tournament. We had a line of men and women in uniform. The athlete with the torch went around the outside of the gymnasium and then up the middle of the line of people in uniform. All the while, “Standing Outside the Fire” by Garth Brooks was playing. I had tears in my eyes to see all these athletes with different skills and abilities and all these people here to support and cheer for them. I will continue to volunteer with Special Olympics because of the joy it brings me to see the athletes with such happiness and sense of accomplishment

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Unified Track and Field at Lunenburgh High School

As summer break comes to an end and school officially starts, we wanted to share a great post on Unified Sports from Special Olympics Massachusetts Unified Partner David Albertini of Lunbenburg High School. As David begins his senior year of high school, he shares his experience on the power of Unified Sports.  

Having unified track at our school last year was really fun. It was very nice to see so many people of different backgrounds and walks of life down on the track. I myself ran on the Lunbenburg High School track team, but having the unified track team there three days a week was quite an experience. It was  amazing to see all of the athletes at Lunenburg High School running on the same track. While we may be all of different speeds and skill levels, we were all athletes and we were all looking to compete. There was no labels on anyone except for their lane numbers. This is something anyone would appreciate, runner or not.

I have to admit that I was uncertain as to how this whole thing would work out, but after the first practice I realized we had a lot more in common that I thought.

We were all athletes and wanted to get better and win.

The final meet at the end of the season with all the unified track teams was a lot of work but it was all worth it. It was hot out and on an artificial turf surface, but it was so much fun to see every person on that track trying their best. There is something to be said about people who try their best and are proud of it. The biggest difference for me was that I was working the meet instead of running in the meet. Other than that, it had the same look and feel of any other meet I had been to, that was something else I hadn’t expected. I could relate to the athletes being nervous, excited, disappointed, and victorious at different points in the meet.

I think a lot of misconceptions and barriers came down during the meet.

At the end of the season we had our Spring track Banquet, as we do every year. It seemed natural that the Unified Sports Track Team would be included in the celebration along with the boys’ team and girls’ team. As the coaches handed out varsity letters and other awards, the excitement level increased and you could really see the pride and sense of accomplishment among the track athletes (all of them) and their families. All three teams had a great time and I think everyone learned a lot about each other. I think the second year will be even better. I hope all of our track programs continue to attract new members.

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Just the beginning…

As students finish up their final tests and get ready for summer to officially begin, we wanted to share an amazing reflection from Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee Chair, Karolyn Sundberg. As Karolyn readies herself to transition from high school to college, she shares some powerful insights on the positive impact of Project UNIFY throughout her high school experience.  

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

As senior year and my time as Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee chair comes to a close – this quote offers advice that I will soon have to take.

Reflecting on this past year as Chair of the Youth Activation Committee (YAC) – there have been countless wonderful memories – new experiences, goals reached, friendships made, and people who were inspired to come together for a truly amazing cause.  I am so incredibly proud of and moved by the devoted young leaders of our SORI Project UNIFY movement;  so proud of those individuals who have been so dedicated to working on all of our projects this year. Now our goal is to continue to reach out to youth in our state to spread the ideas of inclusion, unity, and acceptance.

I am exceedingly grateful for such a wonderful experience.

My involvement with Special Olympics began in the fall of my junior year.  I was  assigned to help plan the SORI annual Youth Forum and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere that surrounded Special Olympics and everyone involved.  While at this point there were only about 15 members and meeting attendance was sparse, we still began to see how powerful and motivating youth could be when it came to promoting inclusion and unity in their high schools. At my first YAC meeting of this year – I was awed to see how many students had eagerly come out to get involved with the program.  In just one year, our YAC had grown so large that it was divided into 5 regions, where each region was assigned to different tasks and projects.  Through the YAC, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the kindest, hardest working students from every corner of the state.  All of us had one common purpose – to speak out for equality and acceptance among students with and without disabilities.

I remember at the first YAC meeting  – it seemed as if there was so much to be done.  However, I never would have imagined that we would have been able to achieve some of the things we did this year. The YAC planned and organized a Youth Forum for athletes, partners and coaches to learn about ways to promote inclusion and inspire unity. We planned and organized the very first Middle School Youth Forum in the Nation. We created a statewide newsletter to share our stories of success and spread the word about our cause. Also, we successfully encouraged high school students to participate and support the Torch Run Plunge and Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in their schools.  We had record numbers participate in both of events.

Most importantly, this year as the YAC chair, I witnessed how Special Olympics touches the lives and hearts of so many people in so many ways.  I experienced firsthand the difference it makes. Special Olympics taught me to embrace differences and recognize talents in everyone.  I now realize the importance of the positivity and support Special Olympics offers to everyone and the confidence one can find inwardly after becoming involved. I continue to be inspired by the work the SORI YAC is doing and am honored to have had the chance to be a part of such a great group of people.

I know that my involvement with Special Olympics is something that will not end, and I am so thankful for the opportunity.

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum

Aspiration and Inspiration

The following guest post comes from Rajeswari Ranjan, a youth leader and advocate with Special Olympics Bharat (India). Over the last two years, Special Olympics Project UNIFY has expanded globally in five countries – Bharat, Austria, Italy, Serbia and Romania – thanks to the generous support of Ray and Stephanie Lane.  

SOBharatMy name is Rajeswari Ranjan of India! It gives me great pleasure to put down my experience as being a part of this prestigious community that strives to serve and reduce the gap between people with and without intellectual disabilities. It’s been more than a year since I have been associated with Special Olympics and Project UNIFY! Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities opportunities to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, experience joy and friendship.

My special friends are not only filled with zeal but have a great courage in them to move on in life as each day passes by! They act as a role model for me because I believe that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until faced”. They are the real heroes of our generation because they have the courage and potential to face everything in life with great dedication and sincerity! They have inspired me to become like them! The only disability in life is a bad attitude!

Hence, from nowhere can my friends be called disabled because they live life to the fullest and are filled with positive energy! It’s been a great experience working with them right from the beginning of the Project UNIFY Youth Leaders Training Program, Opening Eyes Programs, Youth Activation Committee Workshop followed by the Unified Sports Festival, Project UNIFY Awareness Program and the Project UNIFY Cultural Program that I have attended to date! Being a sportsperson at the national level, I am very happy to regard myself as a youth leader!

Hats off to the entire team for such an innovative work! Everyone’s doing a great job.

To My Friend…

The beautiful poem below was written by 14-year old Project UNIFY youth leader Raven McCombs from North Carolina.

Special Olympics athlete Taylor Stickle listens on as Raven McCombs reads her poem.

Special Olympics athlete Taylor Stickle listens on as Raven McCombs reads her poem.

Your spirit has taught me that we are so far behind, you face challenges that don’t compare to mine.

I am in awe of all of your courage, you never seem to get discouraged.

We all often just walked on by, and never noticed the light in your eye.

You always accept us for who we are, and he is the reason we have made it this far.

It is my honor to call you a friend, a friend I’ll be there for them beginning to end.

Not another day will go by where you have to sit and wonder why.

I’ll be there for you, you’ll be there for me. Our trust is the clue and our love is the key.

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.