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.

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Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

This past weekend, our National Youth Activation Committee members were here in Washington, DC for the bi-annual National YAC meeting! 19 youth leaders, along with 14 mentors from their local state Special Olympics Programs, came together from around the country to brainstorm ideas and plan for a great year of projects and activities.

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As always – I was blown away by these amazing and inspiring youth leaders who help catapult our movement of acceptance and respect into schools and towns across the country. While there were so many examples of their incredible leadership throughout the weekend, I had to share the results of one particular activity during a professional development session.

In the activity, each National YAC member was asked to develop a quote that expressed their ideas, thoughts, values, feelings or attitudes about Special Olympics, friends, family and/or courage.

The results are amazing. These young people are truly the leaders of today… but they will most certainly be the leaders of the future as well.

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“Special Olympics isn’t just for people with disabilities… Special Olympics has helped me find my voice, build my confidence and identify my passion.”
Kaitlyn Smith, Colorado

“Stop watching every step you take. Close your eyes and let the world surprise you.”
Shelby Lynne Dial, Wyoming

“Everyone can help create change; you just have to believe in yourself.”
Heather Glaser, Wyoming

“Let the way you walk and talk exemplify who you truly are.”
Daniel Fink, Washington

“Leaders don’t follow the path of the past; leaders make their own path. If they are a true leader, no matter the obstacles, they will prevail.”
Dallas Lopez, Texas

“Everyday a new challenge awaits, it’s up to us to find the right path.”
Brady Platt, South Carolina

“Our memories define us: every laugh, every kiss, every tear is a part of who we are. So let’s strive to become better people starting with our memories.”
Rachel Alm, Hawaii

“I am nothing without my Special Olympics family – they encourage and inspire me to be better.”
Kelsey Foster, South Carolina

“Life with your three musketeers always makes you happy.”
James Kweon, Idaho

“Change should be respected, not hated.”
Bernice Higa-French, Hawaii

“Each of us is created with a seed deep within. When you embrace the sunshine of all circumstances and be open to the shower of others’ influence, only then will a beautiful flower grow that will be a gift to the world.”
Danielle Liebl, Minnesota

“There are four words on the Special Olympics medal: skill, courage, sharing and joy. Skill is the least important because the other three are what win you the gold.”
Jordan Schubert, Philadelphia

“I want to live in a world where madness is meditated, nonsense is valued, challenges are embraced and fostering creativity and imagination is our greatest objective.”
Evan Heller, Massachusetts

“Life as a star is like reaching a certain goal. Our favorite YAC family is like a huge star – above and beyond.”
Tanealya Hueth, Montana

“Our World, Our Future”: Youth Changing the World

About the Authors: Clement Coulston and Danielle Liebl are members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® National Youth Activation Committee. They recently attended the National Service Learning Conference to network, share and learn with other youth, teachers, and organizations throughout the world. 

In looking at the problems facing society today, one can grow hopeless and overwhelmed to address those challenges.  Too often, humanity looks at youth as energetic individuals, but neglects to utilize us as competent individuals to work to address societal issues.  Our community is at a loss from not making use of this untapped potential and creativity.

However, at the 23rd National Service Learning Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, we witnessed the power of youth engagement, passion for change, and leadership.  Many youth from various organizations gathered to raise awareness for various causes, like recycling programs and using sports as a catalyst for social change.  Experiencing and embracing youth leadership made us ponder how we often define the word, “leadership.” 

What does leadership mean to you?

Ability to take a stance?  The person who is academically talented, athletic, and popular?  These are some of the common descriptions people associate with being a leader.  We are going to propose to you a new perspective.

Through our work with Special Olympics Project UNIFY, we challenge the meaning of leadership to identify, utilize, and embrace the talent of each person to contribute to the community.  In the past, the input of youth with disabilities has been undermined and even unincorporated in many of the core activities at schools.  This has propelled us to evaluate how youth are integrated into the school to ensure each person not only has a voice, but are provided meaningful opportunities to be engaged!

We are shifting the paradigm of leadership from leadership of the few, to co-leadership, where each person is a leader by sharing their talents with the community.  We are  improving the educational system by including youth input.  We are providing a new perspective and unique proposals in addressing some of the problems faced today.

We challenge you to see your colleagues and peers as valued and talented individuals who have talents to share!  However, we must open our eyes to their ability, rather than look down upon their challenges.

We see talent and ability first, do you?