Courage to Make a Difference

Last month, Special Olympics Idaho staffer Laurie LaFollette had the opportunity to speak at the Congressional Award Ceremony in Idaho. The Congressional Award is given to young Americans between 14- and 23-years-old who set goals in four program areas: volunteer public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration. Ms. LaFollette spoke about the power of youth volunteerism and the ability for young people to make a difference in their community. Enjoy a portion of her moving speech below.

“Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve …you only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Everyone has the capacity to give and every person can make an impact in society, regardless of age, education or income.  I believe that giving is core to being human.

There are about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old that make up 18 percent of the global population.  The global youth presents a significant force for good, and youth volunteerism can be part of the solution to many problems faced by the world.  Youth volunteerism contributes to social development and cultivates a caring generation.

At Special Olympics, we also recognize the power of youth.  We have a program called “Project UNIFY,” which is school-based program in the United States that will help Special Olympics become a leading cause among youth and develop the next generation of Special Olympics leaders.  Among the greatest values of the Special Olympics movement is its power to change attitudes of people who are fearful of, or misunderstand people with special needs.  This power is most effective in schools, among young people who have the potential to form an acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities that can last throughout their lives.  By engaging youth without intellectual disabilities, we are shaping future generations of tolerance and acceptance for all people.  Project UNIFY seeks to create a legion of young people who are leaders in their communities for Special Olympics and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities.

Young people, Like Soeren Palumbo, who at the age of 18 gave an eye opening speech against the word “retard” at his high school, and became a leader in the global movement to eliminate the use of the word, using the internet and social networking.  Palumbo, inspired by his sister who has an intellectual disability, is now taking that conversation to the campus of Notre Dame University, launching a global university-based volunteerism, advocacy and fundraising initiative called “SO College.”

I am so appreciative of the work and mission of the Congressional Award.  It provides an opportunity for empowering young people to take a greater responsibility for their own lives, to discover new talents, to advocate on behalf of others and to become a part of the community.  The Congressional Award also recognizes that it is our youth who have the idealism, courage and passion to make a difference.

You are being recognized today because you share a strong belief that you can make a difference.  You are leaders amongst your peers and you are in a position to also inspire your peers to become the best they can be.  Showing, that if given an opportunity, every person has the capacity to be successful and that human greatness is defined more by the spirit than the body.

I hope that by achieving the Congressional Award today that you have learned that you too are a champion, and to never limit what you can do and never give up on doing good.  Don’t let your age, your circumstances or anything you perceive to be a challenge, discourage you from taking that next step, to make a difference, to change the world one step at a time.  If you do this, we will be led to the moment written about by a French philosopher many years ago:

“Someday, after conquering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Finally, I say to the audience, if you despair of finding true role models in the human family, if you are tempted to believe that the quest for a better world is futile, look around you and see the faces of our Congressional Award winners here today.  You will see focus.  You will see the best in humanity.  You will see these faces and be refreshed.