The Blessing of Friendship

For Special Olympics athlete and National Youth Activation Committee member Jared Niemeyer, friendship is a blessing that he’ll never take for granted. Read his inspiring blog to see why. 

Friends are people who care about you, respect you, really listen to you, are thoughtful and do nice things because they want to see you smile, but most of all – you are important to them because you matter!  I have some really great friends!

As a Special Olympic athlete I have a lot of friends with intellectual or developmental disabilities.  We love doing things together; we care about what happens to each other, we encourage each other and look out for each other.  We are friends and enjoy doing things together! Special Olympics has given us the opportunity to experience a lot that some of us would never have had the chance to do.  We also play Unified Sports, so many of our teammates are also Unified partners and don’t have disabilities; we are friends and have a lot of fun working and playing together.

Going to a public school that promotes inclusive education also allows you to be friends with all students. We get to know one another well; we work and study together and enjoy being together every day. Sometimes you have to make your own way; be friendly so others learn who you are and what you can do. Usually, I make friends with others easily and am a great friend. One year during a Special Olympic area event the Varsity and Junior Varsity baseball team came to cheer me on!!!! They had made signs because they wanted to help me just like I help them as the baseball manager!! It was awesome to have my friends there cheering me on!

I graduated from high school in 2011 and work in our community.  I even moved into a place of my own with a friend of mine; Max and I graduated from high school together and planned to live independently within 2 years.  Our parents helped us figure out how we could afford living on our own, helped find a duplex in a residential neighborhood, and taught us how to manage every day. The day we moved in one of my friends from school stopped by to welcome us to the neighborhood!  He wanted to make sure we knew how to reach him if we needed anything or just wanted to talk.  He’s a great friend and we have Bible Study regularly – he graduates in May and will be going to West Point next fall. Another friend’s parents live around the corner and I can reach them anytime – his dad is a police officer and we’ve done the Torch Run together! I’ve learned so much about being a good friend because of the experiences and opportunities I’ve had.

Special Olympics isn’t just about amazing people – it’s about being all you can be and doing all you can! Opportunities teach you a lot – I even have an entire YAC (Youth Activation Committee) family because of Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

A lot of my friends don’t have disabilities; I’m so grateful that they look at me and see who I am, not just seeing that I am someone with a disability. I have value to my friends – they care and truly listen. They tell me that I’ve taught them about respect and thoughtfulness.

I’m blessed to have the friends I do!

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The Magic of Inclusion

Walking into a class and ignoring differences between students is not the perfect world.

The perfect world is walking into a class where you can see all sorts of differences, yet everyone is interacting with each other and having fun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s magic.

I am an elementary education major and this past semester I was placed in a second grade classroom where I was able to teach once a week. The first day I walked into the classroom I could feel the magic in the air. The class was full of diverse students – along with the typical students, there were students who were gifted and students with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, and autism. But the students didn’t talk about their different abilities and they didn’t talk about how they were different from each other. But there was definitely a lot of talking. The students were constantly talking about what they were learning and what was going on in their lives. They weren’t judging each other for their differences or asking questions about why they acted differently.

They were just being kids.

But beyond being kids, they were true friends. All of the students had a strong bond that will hopefully last for years to come.

I remember walking around during one class while the students worked on a graphing assignment. When I walked past the student with autism, who I helped frequently, I realized that he didn’t need my help that day. His classmate sitting next to him was talking him through the steps of the assignment. He wasn’t told to do this; he wasn’t put next to this student to lend him help when needed; he wasn’t helping him because he felt sorry for him; he was simply helping out his friend. Abracadabra.

But we need to realize that this magic doesn’t just happen…it takes a magician – the teacher – to put it all together and make the audience – the students – believe in the magic.

Because of their teacher, these students were allowed to see the magic of inclusion in the classroom. But this magic wasn’t just a trick – it was real.

That was inclusion at its best.

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.

Back to School

It’s that time of year again – time to go back to school! As teachers, students and parents make their final preparations for the school year to begin, Andrea Cahn, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Senior Director, and Betty Edwards, Chairman of the National Education Leadership Network, share an important message for the new school year:  

Do you remember the bittersweet excitement at the beginning of every school year? Summer was ending, yes, but for many of us, each September meant a fresh beginning—new teachers, a pristine three-ring binder or box of crayons, crisp just-bought clothes, the promise of achievement in the air. We felt the tingle of anticipation of friendships yet unformed, great successes still to be dreamed, and new discoveries of the world and ones’ self. We set foot onto the freshly waxed floors excited to see friends, participate in after-school activities, and to learn. For others, school never quite lived up to expectations and getting on the bus in the morning was a time of intimidation and concern — and for some, school was, and still is, a simply devastating experience.

How is it that even on that first hopeful day of school, some students are shining beacons, while others are ciphers unseen by other students or even their own teachers?

The excitement for school starts at kindergarten, when the angst is often greater for the parent than the child. But that wide-eyed exuberance fades in a less supportive, inclusive school. Just as Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about our schools draining the creativity out of our students, so can the natural curiosity and joy of learning evaporate if children are not provided with the opportunity to be central to and engaged in the learning experience.

As students advance through school, that angst can be shared by both parent and child. In the August 2011 issue of Middle Ground, Angela Thomas shares her own fears as her only child enters middle school.

I did not sleep well the night before. Despite the fact I knew Shayla had all of her sixth grade school supplies neatly packed in her new book bag and was very excited about starting middle school, many of the situations that broke my heart as a middle school teacher were suddenly flashing before me with extreme force.

Would someone else be there for her if she needed help? Would she be the brunt of someone’s joke or bullying? Would my daughter now be one of the kids who couldn’t get the combination lock to work? If she had a question, would she be too afraid to ask?

Parents’ concerns are not always unfounded. Last fall, a Florida father stormed onto a school bus to protect his daughter from students who had reportedly bullied his daughter. This was even more disturbing because the girl has a disability.  The father said he wished “kids would understand how much pain bullying and taunting causes other children.” His daughter had just begun middle school and has since changed schools.

Transition between schools is a challenging time for students, whether it’s elementary to middle, or middle to high, or to a new school altogether, and it’s a time when students can be “lost.” Leaving the cocoon of elementary school, students face much trepidation—some of it as simple as the idea of changing classes, or addressing the “fear” of the locker — “Will I be able to open my combination lock?” To an eleven-year-old that seemingly minor doubt can be traumatizing.

How traumatizing, too, to be a student labeled as “special needs” or with an intellectual “disability.” Someone for whom that transition from the safe, nurturing haven of home to the unwelcoming isolation of the school hallway happens every day. How paralyzing! How painful! Who could be expected to learn anything under these conditions?!

It is our responsibility to actively “be there” for students, observing, asking questions, and ensuring an environment in which each student is valued and acknowledged every step along their educational path. Dr. Thomas advised us to take the steps necessary to ensure that each student is known, that no one is a cipher.

When teachers really know their students, they know when something doesn’t feel right…Teachers need to reach out to families and share their insights…. It doesn’t take long, but it may make all the difference in a student’s life.

The beginning of the school year is a tremendous opportunity for adults in the school and community to work to ensure that each student has a positive experience at school and is engaged in his or her own learning. Project UNIFY has identified actions and structures that help provide an inclusive, supportive environment. Among those are:

  • School leaders  and staff:
    • create an inclusive culture, showcasing the work and achievements of all, creating unified programs, and eliminating boundaries between students.
    • actively encourages a sense of community among all students that promotes student engagement and relationships within and beyond the school setting.
    • provide regular and frequent activities in which adults and youth work together to solve problems and learn together, promoting a collaborative climate.
    • work to close gaps or division among students with and without disabilities and among the teachers who serve in the school.
    • eliminate physical barriers and creates an environment that is physically accessible, safe, and supportive for all.
    • All young people, regardless of ability or achievement level, are given a voice to make meaningful change in their classroom, school, and community.
    • Students are activated to co-develop, maintain, and be accountable for an inclusive climate and physical environment in their classrooms, school, and community.

So, at this beginning of a new school year, let’s ensure that a student’s excitement about school grows each year not diminishes; that students are known as powerful individuals; and that each student is given the opportunity make a difference, have a voice, and be an active member of the school community. We must care—and let students know that we care. We must recognize each student’s gifts and let each one shine brightly.