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.

A Special Meaning for Special Olympics

Every once in awhile we get to hear powerful and impactful stories from people involved with Special Olympics and Project UNIFY in their school. The following is an amazing poem that truly gets to the heart of Special Olympics. The poem comes from 17-year-old Jessica, a high school student and Special Olympics New York athlete. Jessica wrote the brief introduction to her teacher as a thank you for getting her involved. 

Ms. Virga – I wanted to thank you for being the greatest person in Commack [High School]. You run so many great event and without you bringing Special Olympics to Commack, I  would not have met all my new friends. You are truly a great person and have a great heart you are the greatest person 🙂

A poem I wrote:

S is for special

P is for power

is for expectation

C is for coaches

is for imagination

A is for acceptance

L is for love

O is for Olympic

L is for line up at starting line

is for y cant this be everyday

M is for more friends

P is for positivity

I is for ice cream after the dance

C is for caring

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.

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!

The Power of Friendship

William and Emily of Special Olympics Missouri know firsthand the true power of unified sports — friendship!

My name is William Reese, I am 16 and am a partner with Special Olympics at my school, Warrenton High School in Warrenton, Missouri.

What I really like about Unified Sports are all the opportunities I have been given.  I am a member of the Youth Activation Committee (YAC) and through YAC I have done a lot of awesome things.  We have had a lot of training on promoting unified sports and how to promote it in our school.  I have been able to go to Mizzou and promote Spreading the Word to End the Word. I am going this summer to volunteer at sports camp and in just two weeks I am going with my friend Emily Carroll and some other people to Denver Colorado for a Unified Sports workshop.

Through all of the things I have had the opportunity to do with Unified Sports, the most important are the friendships I have been able to build.  I have met Emily and we team up a lot for YAC events, and when she gets nervous, I am there to help her.

Being a leader
This last weekend at a unified basketball game we played a team that was younger than our high school team, so we did not play as aggressively as we normally would.  All of the partners were able to talk with our teammates about why we were not going to play as aggressively as we usually do. You could see how much it meant to the athletes on the other team and it was a great feeling, every time the other team scored we cheered just like with our own teammates!  As partner we were there to lead our teammates, but the athletes were also given the opportunity to be leaders.  Being a part of Special Olympics Unified Sports really teaches you to be a true team player!

My friend Emily
My friend Emily Carroll is 15 and has been a Special Olympics athlete at in our school district since she was 8.  What Emily likes about Special Olympics Unified Sports are “all of my friends”.  Emily is a member of YAC and she was really excited about going to Mizzou to promote Spread the Word to End the Word, what she really liked was “spending the day with James Franklin, her friend”James is a first string quarterback for Mizzou and he was there volunteering his time!

Emily has made a lot of friends through unified sports and she has become much more outgoing, I see her coming out of her shell more all the time!  She even went to the Torch Run Kickoff Conference a few months ago to introduce some speakers.  When I heard Emily was going to do this I was amazed because she gets so nervous, but she did an amazing job!

The end that is not the end…
Emily and I both really enjoy unified sports, it has changed us both so much and it is something we will both be participating in for a really long time!