From Doctor to Nonprofit Leader

Danielle Liebl, a former Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee Member from Minnesota, recently established her own non-profit – DIFFERbilities Experience. An extraordinary individual, Danielle has dedicated her life to make a difference for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

The following blog post was written by Danielle for the DIFFERbilities Experience Blog and shared here with permission..

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At the age of six years old, I can recall my mom and dad asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always responded, “An orthopedic surgeon at Gillette.” You may be wondering how on earth does a six year old know what an orthopedic surgeon is? When you have cerebral palsy, not only do you see a lot of doctors, you also become very familiar with their titles. At the age of six, my primary doctor was an orthopedic surgeon and I thought he was the coolest! This dream of being an orthopedic surgeon lasted until sophomore year in high school, when biology class was required and I found out it is not my cup of tea. I believe my parents let out a huge sigh of relief when they realized there would be no lawsuits in the future. They always feared that I would have a spasm and accidentally put someone’s femur bone in their rib cage.

Although I realized that a career as a surgeon may not be for me, I still knew I wanted to help people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. I decided instead of forcing myself to like biology, I should focus on something I was passionate. In high school I was very involved in Special Olympics. Through this tremendous organization, I was able to find my voice, my confidence and my passion. No longer was I the girl with cerebral palsy, instead, I was a respected human being. In February 2009, I was invited to the Special Olympics World Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. There I was able to be a part of a group of leaders with and without disabilities to form the campaign, “Spread The Word To End The Word.” This campaign educates young people about the misuse of the word “retard(ed).” For the first time in my life a saw a future of a better society , a society that doesn’t label ability or the lack thereof. This vision of the future stuck with me when I entered my freshman year at the College of Saint Benedict.

During my first year of college, I decided to host a Spread The Word To End The Word Campaign at my college. Once the campaign took off, students started noticing the campaign and the goal of social equality it was trying to achieve. One student took a particular interest and emailed me to see what he could do to help. The following fall my classmate and I created a club that was affiliated with Special Olympics Minnesota. The purpose of the club was to raise awareness for people with disabilities, promote the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and to educate students and faculty on campus about better ways to treat, interact, and build relationships with people with disabilities. The original idea of the club was to promote this purpose through events and campaigns such as the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign, and disabilities week. However, we found greater potential of the club, promoting inclusion in a very direct way. The club introduced programs in which students could experience inclusion first hand; programs such as: Greatest Friends and Special Olympics Minnesota Unified Sports.

I had no idea the impact this would make, and how it fed into my vision of creating an inclusive society. Towards the end of my junior year in college, a mentor of mine nominated me for the Peace First Prize. The Peace First Prize is a two year fellowship and grant awarded to young peacemakers who demonstrate compassion, courage and collaborative change. During the six month interview process, I was asked the question, “What do you see as the future of the club you started at your college?” To my surprise I answered, “Growing it into a nonprofit.” In the fall of my senior year, it was announced that I was one of ten recipients of the inaugural Peace First Prize. Shortly after, it was decided that during my fellowship, I would focus on growing the club a started at St. Ben’s into a nonprofit. It was soon after DIFFERbilities Experience was born.

It has been a wild ride to where I ended up. The professions of a doctor and a nonprofit leader are on the complete opposites of the spectrum. Do I regret not being an orthopedic surgeon? On one hand it would be an awesome profession, but then I run the risk of having to take biology again and getting sued for malpractice. On the other hand, I would never have gotten to take this wonderful journey of founding DIFFERbilities Experience. DIFFERbilities Experience has helped me grow as a leader, a person, and has taught me many valuable lessons. I truly hope that DIFFERbilities Experience can impact lives like it has mine. I would not trade this journey for anything, and I look forward to taking the next journey with you.

Together, we will create a world where inclusion is the norm!

 

UNIFIED

Written By: Morgan Lang- Calvert County, MD Unified Partner

U is for Unbelievable
N is for Necessary
I is for Impressive
F is for Fearless
I is for Incredible
E is for Extraordinary
D is for Devoted

But these words do not describe the Unified Partner that I am so honored to be
But the athletes I compete next to and what they are to me.
I started as a partner to teach them how to play sports
They taught be more about life then I could learn on the courts.
As I meet more and more athletes each and every year
My heart grows with love but also hurts with fear
Why fear you ask, cause I know that someday soon as I go off to college and get settled
That the day will come when I can’t be there to see my friends get every Bronze, Silver and Gold medals.
So as I grow into my new life and overcome more feats
You should know that the ones that helped me are all my special athletes.
You tell me thank you, and you say you admire me
But to me YOU are the ones that are so INSPIRING.
I hope that I have left a little piece of me behind
To teach more people out there how to be kind
I hope to continue to inspire more partners to start
But to you my athletes I say thank you and you will always have my heart.

Activation is our Name; Living Unified is our Game

A great year-end reflection on leadership, family and being on the National Youth Activation Committee from National YAC member Jamie Behymer. 

Even though the skies were cloudy, the spirits were high as the 2013-2014 National Youth Activation Committee met for the first time this past November. On the first day, everyone was bonding over breakfast and continuing conversations on a bus ride, leading to the most connected group of 20 youth leaders.

It was not until group sessions began that we realized we have more in common than a drive to promote social inclusion. Whether it is our passion to dance, or creative instinct, or our love of math, we all realized we are alike in some fashion.

IMG_0121Having to be awake and alert at 7:30 a.m. (Eastern Time) could seem daunting for some, especially those accustomed to Pacific Time, like myself. However, being surrounded by others that are excited and prepared to embark on a day’s journey is a profound experience and energized me for a day filled with activity. Working together in sessions to determine our goals for the year, then planning for the 2014 Special Olympics National Games, and finally finishing the day with a “homework party,” we were always together and never wanted to be apart.

Spending four days with these youth leaders was the highlight of my year. They not only encourage and support everyone in their aspirations, but also epitomize the nature of the human spirit. While our friends and community leaders know us as “agents of change,” we consider ourselves a YAC family, and once a family, always a family.

Words cannot describe how phenomenal these individuals are. 2014 is going to be an immaculate year and I am intrigued to see where our journey goes. With sub-committees focused on National Games, to Inclusive Youth Leadership, to State Mentorship, we are all dedicated to making an impact in society any way we can.

As 2013 draws to a close, I wanted to thank all of the members that made this term truly memorable. Working together on weekends to finalize resources, and texting during the week for updates on Project UNIFY® initiatives and life, we are always united.  Together, we will activate acceptance and inclusion as new social norms, and live unified in our endeavors. 

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How I Found My Voice

We’re continuing with our amazing stories from the new book, Stand Up! 75 Young Activists who Rock the World and How You Can Too from John Schlimm. You can read all about the book here.

How I Found My Voice, by Susie Doyens

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 2.21.48 PMI was born with Down syndrome. It is typical for people with Down syndrome to have intellectual disabilities and sort of look alike.

Most of my friends with Down syndrome are outgoing. They talk a lot and mix well with other people. I’m not naturally as outgoing or comfortable looking at other people or talking with them.

I have always been scared and shy. I used to never really talk. Ever. I wrote notes instead. People would talk to me and it made me feel panicky and uncomfortable. I never looked at people’s faces, only their shoes. I was afraid if I said something wrong, people would laugh at me.

Special Olympics came into my life when I was eight years old. My swimming teacher, Emily, got me into my first Special Olympics competition. My whole class came to watch me compete. I was very proud to have so many people cheer for me. After that, I started doing many different sports. I noticed that I was good at them and that confidence helped me to do even better.

My favorite sport is golf. I love golf. I play Special Olympics Unified Sports golf. Unified Sports is when a Special Olympics athlete and a non-Special Olympics athlete (called a Unified Partner) play on the same team. My Unified Partner is Tom. We’ve won many medals. He is very supportive and very sweet. Tom makes me laugh.

But my biggest accomplishment in Special Olympics was when I became a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger. A Global Messenger is an athlete who is trained to give speeches about their experiences with Special Olympics. My area director asked me to become one because she thought I would be good at it. Everybody wondered if I could do it, because I still didn’t talk much.

My first year, I gave 50 speeches! The audiences gave me standing ovations and I loved it. I have had the chance to speak about Special Olympics to many, many people. Sometimes, I speak to thousands of people at a time and I’ve now given more than 300 speeches and hope to keep doing more.

One of my first speeches was to a two-day gathering of Shopko store employees, which included a golf outing that took place on nine different golf courses. There were 1,500 people in the audience. The production director was so afraid that I could not do it that he went to the CEO and president of Special Olympics Illinois and my parents, telling them that he was afraid I would ruin the program. My parents told him not to worry.

When the time came, I marched up on stage. There were two huge screens on either side of me, and I had to stand on a box because I was too short to see over the podium without it. Standing on the box is what made me really nervous, not the speech. When I finished, the audience gave me a two-minute standing ovation! The director told us all that he was so amazed. He was so proud of me and let me know just how good he thought I was.

Check out Stand Up! to read the rest of Susie’s story.

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.

Inclusive Youth Leadership in Action – Share, Inspire and Activate!

During the week of September 2nd to September 5th 2013, Special Olympics Project UNIFY® youth leaders shared their experiences, insights and strategies with students, educators, parents and the community using social media. Student Voice, a recent initiative formed to activate the student voice through building community and opportunity, provided Special Olympics the opportunity to educate their supporters about the power of our work. Student Voice hosted a Twitter Chat and a Google+ Hangout on the topic of Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

Youth Leaders participated as panelists on a Google+ Hangout and decided to co-create a Memory Sheet to reflect on the experience. Each leader shared his or her Special Olympics sports involvement, three insights from the conversation and a quote of wisdom for us to consider!

Connor MooreConnor

I participate in Track and Field (Coach), Long Distance Running (Coach/Mentor), and Bowling (Unified Partner).

  • Unexpected obstacles often offer the opportunity to improve the end result
  • An inclusive discussion about inclusive leadership can produce amazing results
  • Effective communication is a relatable message – whether that be through a story or a joke.

Without inclusive youth leadership, a movement isn’t moving anywhere soon.” – Connor Moore, Special Olympics Delaware

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Kabir Robinson

I play unified soccer.

  • I like the way partners on the YAC [Youth Activation Committee] help each other.
  • I like the way Lindsey and Erin work together.
  • I like it that Erin draws pictures to express her feelings in public.

I love public speaker because I want to see new people who don’t know about Unified Sports.” – Kabir Robinson, Special Olympics Washington 

Karina Vargas-Silva

I participate in basketball, and Unified soccer.Karina

  • I believe that we all have something to give, whether it’s our time, our affection, or our thoughts, and I encourage you all to remember to give.
  • We can all learn from each other despite our abilities or disabilities, we all have something that we can share with someone else.
  • Teamwork is very helpful, and sometimes you can achieve more when you work together.

The only way you can truly impact someone’s life is by opening up and letting them impact yours.” – Karina Vargas-Silva, Special Olympics Washington

Erin

Erin Meyer

I participate in Soccer and Track.

  • Inclusive youth leaders work hard and work together.
  • Inclusive youth leaders do good things.
  • Inclusive youth leaders make new friends.

Project UNIFY is fun because you work with more people.” – Erin Meyer, Special Olympics New Jersey

Lindsey Conlan

I am a volunteer at track and field and soccer events.

  • IMG_1380It is imperative that we allot time and provide opportunities for everyone to share their opinions and ideas in their own ways so that all voices can be heard.
  • Youth are just as powerful as adults! With the right amount of support from administration, youth can have a huge impact on their peers.
  • Project UNIFY should be used as a means to create lasting friendships that extend past the playing field.

A call to action: If you have the opportunity to volunteer at a Special Olympics event, take it one step further. Keep in touch with at least one athlete via social media, going out to eat, or simply cheering for that athlete at their next competition. This type of action will continue to promote the core idea of Project Unify after the games are over.” – Lindsey Conlan, Special Olympics New Jersey

Kelsey Foster

I participate in Unified Basketball and I help train the Athletes for all the competitions.

  • 230x300_KelseyFosterWhole school inclusion makes everyone feel valued.
  • Everyone has a talent that can be used to implicate whole school inclusion.
  • End-the-R-Word Campaigns are great ways to get everyone involved.

Being a part of Project UNIFY is the best thing in the world. It makes you feel appreciated and valued, you meet wonderful friends, and it gives you  the chance to make a positive difference in the world.” – Kelsey Foster, Special Olympics South Carolina. 

We encourage you to learn more from these youth leaders by watching the Google+ Hangout!

Just the beginning…

As students finish up their final tests and get ready for summer to officially begin, we wanted to share an amazing reflection from Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee Chair, Karolyn Sundberg. As Karolyn readies herself to transition from high school to college, she shares some powerful insights on the positive impact of Project UNIFY throughout her high school experience.  

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

As senior year and my time as Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee chair comes to a close – this quote offers advice that I will soon have to take.

Reflecting on this past year as Chair of the Youth Activation Committee (YAC) – there have been countless wonderful memories – new experiences, goals reached, friendships made, and people who were inspired to come together for a truly amazing cause.  I am so incredibly proud of and moved by the devoted young leaders of our SORI Project UNIFY movement;  so proud of those individuals who have been so dedicated to working on all of our projects this year. Now our goal is to continue to reach out to youth in our state to spread the ideas of inclusion, unity, and acceptance.

I am exceedingly grateful for such a wonderful experience.

My involvement with Special Olympics began in the fall of my junior year.  I was  assigned to help plan the SORI annual Youth Forum and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere that surrounded Special Olympics and everyone involved.  While at this point there were only about 15 members and meeting attendance was sparse, we still began to see how powerful and motivating youth could be when it came to promoting inclusion and unity in their high schools. At my first YAC meeting of this year – I was awed to see how many students had eagerly come out to get involved with the program.  In just one year, our YAC had grown so large that it was divided into 5 regions, where each region was assigned to different tasks and projects.  Through the YAC, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the kindest, hardest working students from every corner of the state.  All of us had one common purpose – to speak out for equality and acceptance among students with and without disabilities.

I remember at the first YAC meeting  – it seemed as if there was so much to be done.  However, I never would have imagined that we would have been able to achieve some of the things we did this year. The YAC planned and organized a Youth Forum for athletes, partners and coaches to learn about ways to promote inclusion and inspire unity. We planned and organized the very first Middle School Youth Forum in the Nation. We created a statewide newsletter to share our stories of success and spread the word about our cause. Also, we successfully encouraged high school students to participate and support the Torch Run Plunge and Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in their schools.  We had record numbers participate in both of events.

Most importantly, this year as the YAC chair, I witnessed how Special Olympics touches the lives and hearts of so many people in so many ways.  I experienced firsthand the difference it makes. Special Olympics taught me to embrace differences and recognize talents in everyone.  I now realize the importance of the positivity and support Special Olympics offers to everyone and the confidence one can find inwardly after becoming involved. I continue to be inspired by the work the SORI YAC is doing and am honored to have had the chance to be a part of such a great group of people.

I know that my involvement with Special Olympics is something that will not end, and I am so thankful for the opportunity.

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum