From Doctor to Nonprofit Leader

Danielle Liebl, a former Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee Member from Minnesota, recently established her own non-profit – DIFFERbilities Experience. An extraordinary individual, Danielle has dedicated her life to make a difference for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

The following blog post was written by Danielle for the DIFFERbilities Experience Blog and shared here with permission..

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At the age of six years old, I can recall my mom and dad asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always responded, “An orthopedic surgeon at Gillette.” You may be wondering how on earth does a six year old know what an orthopedic surgeon is? When you have cerebral palsy, not only do you see a lot of doctors, you also become very familiar with their titles. At the age of six, my primary doctor was an orthopedic surgeon and I thought he was the coolest! This dream of being an orthopedic surgeon lasted until sophomore year in high school, when biology class was required and I found out it is not my cup of tea. I believe my parents let out a huge sigh of relief when they realized there would be no lawsuits in the future. They always feared that I would have a spasm and accidentally put someone’s femur bone in their rib cage.

Although I realized that a career as a surgeon may not be for me, I still knew I wanted to help people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. I decided instead of forcing myself to like biology, I should focus on something I was passionate. In high school I was very involved in Special Olympics. Through this tremendous organization, I was able to find my voice, my confidence and my passion. No longer was I the girl with cerebral palsy, instead, I was a respected human being. In February 2009, I was invited to the Special Olympics World Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. There I was able to be a part of a group of leaders with and without disabilities to form the campaign, “Spread The Word To End The Word.” This campaign educates young people about the misuse of the word “retard(ed).” For the first time in my life a saw a future of a better society , a society that doesn’t label ability or the lack thereof. This vision of the future stuck with me when I entered my freshman year at the College of Saint Benedict.

During my first year of college, I decided to host a Spread The Word To End The Word Campaign at my college. Once the campaign took off, students started noticing the campaign and the goal of social equality it was trying to achieve. One student took a particular interest and emailed me to see what he could do to help. The following fall my classmate and I created a club that was affiliated with Special Olympics Minnesota. The purpose of the club was to raise awareness for people with disabilities, promote the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and to educate students and faculty on campus about better ways to treat, interact, and build relationships with people with disabilities. The original idea of the club was to promote this purpose through events and campaigns such as the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign, and disabilities week. However, we found greater potential of the club, promoting inclusion in a very direct way. The club introduced programs in which students could experience inclusion first hand; programs such as: Greatest Friends and Special Olympics Minnesota Unified Sports.

I had no idea the impact this would make, and how it fed into my vision of creating an inclusive society. Towards the end of my junior year in college, a mentor of mine nominated me for the Peace First Prize. The Peace First Prize is a two year fellowship and grant awarded to young peacemakers who demonstrate compassion, courage and collaborative change. During the six month interview process, I was asked the question, “What do you see as the future of the club you started at your college?” To my surprise I answered, “Growing it into a nonprofit.” In the fall of my senior year, it was announced that I was one of ten recipients of the inaugural Peace First Prize. Shortly after, it was decided that during my fellowship, I would focus on growing the club a started at St. Ben’s into a nonprofit. It was soon after DIFFERbilities Experience was born.

It has been a wild ride to where I ended up. The professions of a doctor and a nonprofit leader are on the complete opposites of the spectrum. Do I regret not being an orthopedic surgeon? On one hand it would be an awesome profession, but then I run the risk of having to take biology again and getting sued for malpractice. On the other hand, I would never have gotten to take this wonderful journey of founding DIFFERbilities Experience. DIFFERbilities Experience has helped me grow as a leader, a person, and has taught me many valuable lessons. I truly hope that DIFFERbilities Experience can impact lives like it has mine. I would not trade this journey for anything, and I look forward to taking the next journey with you.

Together, we will create a world where inclusion is the norm!

 

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Youth Leaders Take on the White House

Kaitlyn & DanielleOn Thursday July 31st, my Special Olympics adventures took me to a new place: The White House.

President Obama and the First Lady graciously offered to host a dinner in Celebration of the Special Olympics Unified Generation, and I was beyond honored and humbled to be invited to take part in the celebration. Throughout the evening I had the opportunity to speak with amazing individuals, such as President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Jordin Sparks, Jason Derulo, Michelle Kwan, Maria Shriver, constituents from ESPN and Coke, and the list goes on. We were served an immaculate meal, and the evening ended with an amazing private performance by Katy Perry.

Being invited to the White House will go down in the books as one of the most phenomenal experiences I have ever had—but it is not because I was surrounded by celebrities all night. In fact, it is not even because I got to meet the President of the United States. This night was so special and memorable for me, because I experienced it with my best friend, Danielle Liebl, by my side. Nothing, not even meeting the President, could top how blessed and fortunate I am to have a friend like her.

We are changing perceptions on what it means to live unified.

By sharing the power of our friendship with attendees at the dinner, we were sharing the power of the Unified Generation. We are breaking down barriers and creating a community where every single person feels that they have a place to belong. The Unified Generation is changing the world, and I am so honored that my best friend and I are helping to make this happen.

We ARE the Unified Generation!

 

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Learn more about the evening at the White House, or join us and become part of the Unified Generation.

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.

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.

2013 Special Olympics Global Development Summit – The Youth Voice

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Clement Coulston and Rachel Ward, Global Youth Facilitators for the 2013 Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit participated in the inaugural Global Development Summit, which gathered 300 world leaders from areas of government, business, education, economic and social development, media … Continue reading

Schools should be Safe

230x300_SamHThe following blog post is from Samantha Huffman and was written in response to a recent article about a special needs student who was bound with duct tape during school.

Samantha is a former National Youth Activation Committee member and current senior, studying Elementary Education at Hanover College.  

I recently went to a conference where a young man with cerebral palsy kept bringing up how we needed to focus on students with disabilities being tied down to chairs or restrained and/or harmed in some other way by educators.  I kept thinking to myself how this wasn’t important because this would never be allowed to happen in a school in today’s society.  I’m a senior Elementary Education major and never once in my four years of classes have we addressed the idea of restraining students because that’s just plain wrong, isn’t it?  Well, apparently I was living in some kind of dream world and this young man at the conference was living in the real world.

Today I read one of the most terrifying and saddening stories.  In Indianapolis, my hometown nonetheless, an 8-year old girl with Down syndrome came home on the bus with industrial duct tape wrapped around her shoes and socks, which went all the way to the top of her ankles.  Shaylyn, the young girl, wasn’t even able to walk off the bus by herself because it hurt too much.  After her mom carried her daughter off the bus, she immediately took her back to the school where she received help to remove the duct tape.  The process took 30 minutes and left Shaylyn with bruises all over her ankles.

School is supposed to be a place where all children go to receive an education and this education is expected to be in a safe environment.  When this safe environment is jeopardized, the entire education system begins to crumble.

How is a student supposed to reach their full learning potential when they have to worry about the possibility of being harmed by their teacher?  In Shaylyn’s case, it was something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes that caused her to be harmed.  This was doing nothing to interfere with her education, yet one of her teachers decided to not only take away her time of learning to focus on her shoes, but she also chose to restrain her.

This wasn’t just a one-time case.  Currently there are 20 states that have no school policy against restraining students.  That means, that at any given moment of the school day, those students have the possibility of being physically restrained by their teachers and there’s nothing that can be done because it isn’t against policy.  How can this be possible in today’s world?  Teachers can get fired for hitting a child, but it’s perfectly fine for them to tape a student’s shoes to their feet or tie a student to a chair?  To me, these seem equivalently harmful to students, both physically and emotionally, as being hit.

We have come so far with bullying campaigns, disability awareness, etc.  But how can we expect students to view those with disabilities as equals when there are teachers out there who still dehumanize their students with disabilities?  For every student we reach with our awareness, there is a student out there who is turned away from accepting those with disabilities as equals because they see their teacher- their role model- disrespecting and dehumanizing one.

In what world is it okay to physically restrain someone because they aren’t doing what you want them to do?  It is not okay.  These policies need to be created in order to protect all students, especially those with disabilities.  And these teachers that think it is okay need to find a new profession.  Teachers are supposed to protect their students, build their self-esteem, and show them that they matter as a person. How is a teacher doing any of these things when they physically restrain their students?  The answer is they’re not.  All they are doing is showing their students that they have no power over what happens to them.  All they are doing is showing them that they are less than human because their free will- their ability to move freely as they wish- can be taken away for something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes.

Luckily, most teachers aren’t like this.  Most teachers are extremely successful in protecting their students, building their self-esteem, and showing them that they matter as people.  They have the appropriate skills and training to manage the many behavior challenges they will experience in their classrooms.  Unfortunately, many teachers are not given adequate training, instruction, and tools that would make this kind of act of desperation against a child an aberration.

Professional development and appropriate pre-service education for teachers is critical to ensure that we don’t fail our children.

Leadership: From High School to College

As you step down from the podium with your high school diploma in hand, you find yourself in an interim stage between adolescence and adulthood.  You feel as though you have arrived at Platform 9 ¾, stuck between worlds and ready to be carted off to a place perhaps just as magical as Hogwarts: college. While settling in on campus, so many things will change, but you must always remember that you are still a leader.  Everything you learned in high school and all the experience you gained will not go to waste; it will form the foundation of your college leadership.

With every passing year, you are given more freedom at the cost of responsibility.  High school allows you to act as independently as you may while still living under your parents’ roof.  Most youth leadership in high school allows students to form their own plans and carry them out under the structured guidance and supervision of faculty.  During this period, youth seem to be given a leadership permit—the wheel is handed over to them, but the adults still have a brake pedal installed in the passenger side just in case.  This allows students to develop their leadership skills, while letting adults take care of the boring work of forms and finances.

Transitioning from being a leader in high school to a leader in college may seem like you’re hitting the ground running, but it’s not as drastic as it seems.  At its heart, leadership at all stages is about inspiring people.  It’s true, there won’t be as much hand-holding and at times it may feel like the system is working against you, but pushing through all of that will not only make a name for yourself on campus, but foster your leadership ability in a way that you never before had the chance to.  You will be expected to work more independently, but even at college, there is always someone to reach out to for help when needed.  It is essential that you find the right people who will help you along your way, but let you work through your trials on your own.  College can be the best years of your life, but unlike in some high schools, you must always be actively seeking out opportunities to seize.

A leader is someone who shapes their community, so as you enter the realm of higher education, shape yours so that you leave it as a better place than when you first arrived.