Project UNIFY Keynote Speakers Wow Character Educators

Last week Project UNIFY youth leaders Soeren Palumbo and Danielle Liebl presented the keynote address at the Character Education Partnership National Forum. Below you will find a reflection from Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center, who attended the conference, as well as an excerpt from Danielle’s speech. Our youth leaders are amazing and inspiring!

October 21, 2011 was a day of “firsts” at the Character Education Partnership National Forum in San Francisco, California.

Danielle Liebl and Soeren Palumbo, two extraordinary Project UNIFY youth leaders, took the stage as the first student keynote speakers in the 18-year history of the Character Education Partnership (CEP). And their topic – “Creating Environments of Inclusion” – was the first-ever plenary session devoted entirely to the issues surrounding students with developmental disabilities in our schools.

Speaking to hundreds of the nation’s leading character educators, Soeren deftly linked the work of Special Olympics Project UNIFY to the core mission of CEP. He focused on the urgent need to create caring school communities that include all students, emphasizing the critical importance of student voice in those efforts. And he told the moving story of his sister Olivia’s experience as a student with a developmental disability in a school that takes inclusion seriously.

Danielle’s speech was a heartfelt account of how she found the inner strength to stand up for herself – and for all students with intellectual disabilities. Although she suffered from name-calling and harassment, Danielle responded not with bitterness or anger – but with courage and compassion. By creating a Partner’s Club promoting friendship between students with and without disabilities, Danielle demonstrated how a youth leader can help transform a school’s culture.

After Soeren and Danielle spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room. Everyone rose to their feet as one to applaud the message of inclusion – a message delivered from the heart by two remarkable young people. As people lined up afterwards to thank Soeren and Danielle (and give them an embrace), I knew that CEP and the character education movement would now do more to address issues of inclusion.

Thank you Danielle and Soeren for being such powerful ambassadors for Special Olympics Project UNIFY – and for all you have done and will do to inspire others to act with courage and conviction.

Read an excerpt from Danielle’s speech and be inspired by her powerful words and actions:

Before I continue telling my story, I would like to introduce myself; I am Danielle Liebl, an upcoming sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota and a Special Olympics athlete for more than nine years. At birth, I acquired Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is a disorder the affects my muscle control, coordination, motor skills, and simple movements such as standing, walking, breathing, eating, and learning. Cerebral Palsy is not only considered a physical disability but also a developmental disability as well. For most of my high school career I was considered “Special Ed.” As most of you already know, Special Education has a stereo-type, and personally I disapprove of it.

When I was in school bullying tended to be a regular occurrence for me. My peers started calling me names such as: stupid, ugly, or the one that I think is the most creative, four legs.

Little do these bullies realize, even though we can’t do some of the same things they can do…we can do some things BETTER than they can do. My fellow Special Olympics teammates hated the fact that other students thought this way and they wanted it to change because they felt excluded.

This is exactly what I did. When I was a junior in high school, I attended the Special Olympics Global Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. This led me to act out my desire to start a Partners Club with my best friend and unified partner. Partners Club provides an environment where students with and without disabilities can establish relationships as friends. The first year, the club contained fifteen students. Due to this club, you could see the change in the hallways; they were high-fiving and conversing in the hallways. But most importantly they considered each other friends.

Even though the movement has started there is a lot of change that still needs to happen. But this change is ultimately up to the youth. They want to change and shape their future; they want to have a voice. Are you willing to guide them? One of my favorite teachers once said to me, “Danielle, as much as I want to make this world the best it can be for you, I can’t. You have to do it yourself. If I did it for you, what kind of teacher would I be? I would not be teaching you that YOU can change the world. But always remember I am always here to GUIDE you.”

Are you willing to be that teacher to your students? Together let us learn, and possibly even teach each other a few things. Because someday, our desire for social justice will become a reality. And when that day comes we will be able to stand up and say that we have changed history.

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