About Rebecca

Manager of Youth Leadership for Special Olympics Project UNIFY. I hope to share with you lots of great stories about our youth leaders, school programs and other amazing things we're doing here at Special Olympics.

Youth Voice at the Department of Education

On Tuesday March 25, Special Olympics Project UNIFY staff, along with youth leaders and educators from across the country, presented to the Department of Education on the power and growth of Project UNIFY over the last year. Special Olympics athlete and youth leader Kabir Robinson from Special Olympics Washington, joined Delaware youth leader Connor Moore and educators Erin Trzcinski and Tom Ledcke, from Delaware and Washington, respectively, to share their personal experiences with Project UNIFY.

Kabir’s impactful remarks are below. Stay tuned on the blog for more powerful experiences from Connor, Tom and Erin, or watch the entire presentation here

Introductory Remarks

20140325_094050_resized[2]Hi everyone. My name is Kabir Robinson. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am a member of the National Youth Activation Committee. I have been involved with Special Olympics for 3 to 4 years. I joined because I just want to be treated equally and be happy. I also want to be a better leader in sports.

I have a twin brother. When we were in middle school, he played soccer. He went to practices with his friends and played in games every weekend. I really wanted to play too, but I couldn’t. At school, people were always talking about how cool soccer was. Sometimes I got to play with my friends at middle school, but I wanted to play soccer for real and be on a team.

I felt lonely and left out and sad that I couldn’t play. It wasn’t fair that my brother could be on a team and I couldn’t because I wasn’t fast enough. I just wanted to be happy.

Then, when I went to Nathan Hale High School, one of the coaches for Unified soccer came to my classroom. I found out that people were having meetings about Unified soccer and I decided to go. I was so happy and excited about being on a team. I got more and more excited until we started practices, which were awesome. My team won 10 games. It is so fun to be part of a team.

All I want to say is that I was never fast enough in 7th and 8th grade. But in 9th grade, I did it!

Also, everyone in this room is awesome.

I love public speaking to people about sports for those with and without intellectual disabilities. I love to talk. It is awesome and a lot of fun to speak to people out in public. I love talking to all of you about sports and people with intellectual disabilities. It’s been a lot of fun!

 

Testimonial

Online StreamI have made a lot of friends. This means a lot to me. In school, I just want to learn new things, so I asked my teacher to sign me up for mainstream classes in Spanish and art.

I also want to be with the other sophomores, not just my special education class, because my intellectual disability doesn’t define me. I am a sophomore first. So now, at school assemblies, I sit with all the other 10th graders!

Since Project UNIFY, I am happier and more confident.

Through working with my friends on Project UNIFY, I have learned about myself. I have things to say and people want to hear them.

A leader helps people gets things done. They make you see what good ideas you have. They help you organize your ideas and make something happen. Inclusive Youth Leadership is important to me because it helps me feel included in every way. Then I can help others feel included and I care a lot about other people.

To spread inclusion around makes me happy.

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Combined Talents

 An inspiring poem from Joe Olivo, Grade 11, Narragansett High School in Rhode Island

Spreading the word to end the word.
Playing together as one whole unit.
Making lifelong friends.
Feeling strong.
Cohesiveness is key.
Splendid season.
Sending a positive message.
Everyone on the same page.
Working together.
The more we play the stronger we become.
Changing attitudes and opening up minds.
The future looks bright.
Spreading the word to end the word.

And check out a great Spread the Word to End the Word video from the 2014 Narragansett High School Unified Sports Basketball Team.

A Life Changing Moment

During the Special Olympics Montana Fall Leadership Conference, Glen shared his story with a Special Olympics Montana board member about how Special Olympics saved his life. He wrote his story down so that we could share it with others. Below is a summary of what he shared.

Glen’s Story:

I am Private First Class Matthew Robocker (also known as Glen) of the 495th CSSB stationed in Libby, MT. I live in the small town of Eureka. Even if you don’t know me, I still need to say thank you…you saved my life.

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I was going into the seventh grate and I got into a fight with my best friend. I secluded myself from my first childhood friends and slowly started hanging out with other people. I met a group of kids that I thought were cool and I wanted to fit in with them. It went from doing cool things, like skateboarding outside at school, to not such cool things like, partying and making bad choices. I escalated in my partying to the point that I had a real problem.

To make a long story short, I go in trouble with the law. These “friends” blamed me for some things that I did not do, but could not prove that I didn’t because I was there. Just to give you an idea of the severity of the trouble, I ended up being convicted of 3 felonies and 4 misdemeanors for theft. I was required to do 240 community service hours and serve 2 years of probation. I was still a young teenager!

I went through this all and eventually gained back my original set of friends who I hold dear to this day. I had all but 20 hours of my community service done and nearly all of my probation completed. My probation officer met with me on a Monday and said if I can keep my grades up and can get my hours all taken care of, he would take me off probation and I wouldn’t have to see him again. The very next day I had a conversation with Greg Grove (SOMT Local Program Coordinator). He asked me if I would could and would accompany him along with another student and two athletes to Bozeman, MT to a Project UNIFY Youth Summit. I told him I would do it if he signed a paper saying that I did the remainder of my community service hours. He agreed and we were off.

This was my freshman year of school. We loaded up early in the morning and headed off to Bozeman. I  thought I would never have anything to do with Special Olympics again after that weekend, but I had such a great time my world was changed. We got back home and I was off probation and I had stopped partying like I was before. Greg continued to give me more information about being a Unified partner, and at first I was hesitant. But when I met some athletes, I was saved. I saw that not a single athlete had a frown on their faces and they were all so happy. They were even happy to see me, for what reason, I don’t know. The thought came into my head at that moment that I would always have something to do with Special Olympics.

I have been involved for almost 4 years now. Greg is one of my best friends; he helped me find what I wanted to do in life. On June 11, 2013, I enlisted in the Army National Guard. While I have only been enlisted for a short time, I have “ranked up” twice. Also, because of the moral support of Mr. Grove, I have a beautiful fiancé, wonderful life, and the best friends and family I could have ever asked for. Most importantly I have my friends from Special Olympics Montana! Thank you so much for getting me back on the right path, I truly believe with all my heart if it wasn’t for you and your help, I would be stuck in the same place I was when I started sharing this story with you.

I am so thankful, and look forward to our journeys together in the future!

Activation is our Name; Living Unified is our Game

A great year-end reflection on leadership, family and being on the National Youth Activation Committee from National YAC member Jamie Behymer. 

Even though the skies were cloudy, the spirits were high as the 2013-2014 National Youth Activation Committee met for the first time this past November. On the first day, everyone was bonding over breakfast and continuing conversations on a bus ride, leading to the most connected group of 20 youth leaders.

It was not until group sessions began that we realized we have more in common than a drive to promote social inclusion. Whether it is our passion to dance, or creative instinct, or our love of math, we all realized we are alike in some fashion.

IMG_0121Having to be awake and alert at 7:30 a.m. (Eastern Time) could seem daunting for some, especially those accustomed to Pacific Time, like myself. However, being surrounded by others that are excited and prepared to embark on a day’s journey is a profound experience and energized me for a day filled with activity. Working together in sessions to determine our goals for the year, then planning for the 2014 Special Olympics National Games, and finally finishing the day with a “homework party,” we were always together and never wanted to be apart.

Spending four days with these youth leaders was the highlight of my year. They not only encourage and support everyone in their aspirations, but also epitomize the nature of the human spirit. While our friends and community leaders know us as “agents of change,” we consider ourselves a YAC family, and once a family, always a family.

Words cannot describe how phenomenal these individuals are. 2014 is going to be an immaculate year and I am intrigued to see where our journey goes. With sub-committees focused on National Games, to Inclusive Youth Leadership, to State Mentorship, we are all dedicated to making an impact in society any way we can.

As 2013 draws to a close, I wanted to thank all of the members that made this term truly memorable. Working together on weekends to finalize resources, and texting during the week for updates on Project UNIFY® initiatives and life, we are always united.  Together, we will activate acceptance and inclusion as new social norms, and live unified in our endeavors. 

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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.

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.

A Special Meaning for Special Olympics

Every once in awhile we get to hear powerful and impactful stories from people involved with Special Olympics and Project UNIFY in their school. The following is an amazing poem that truly gets to the heart of Special Olympics. The poem comes from 17-year-old Jessica, a high school student and Special Olympics New York athlete. Jessica wrote the brief introduction to her teacher as a thank you for getting her involved. 

Ms. Virga – I wanted to thank you for being the greatest person in Commack [High School]. You run so many great event and without you bringing Special Olympics to Commack, I  would not have met all my new friends. You are truly a great person and have a great heart you are the greatest person 🙂

A poem I wrote:

S is for special

P is for power

is for expectation

C is for coaches

is for imagination

A is for acceptance

L is for love

O is for Olympic

L is for line up at starting line

is for y cant this be everyday

M is for more friends

P is for positivity

I is for ice cream after the dance

C is for caring