Live a Life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE

For the past 6 years I have been highly involved with Special Olympics and Partners Club, an inclusive club where students with and without intellectual disabilities can come together for sports training and competition.

It all started the first few weeks of High School … There may be a few guys out there that can relate, but I first got involved with Special Olympics when a pretty girl asked me to come to a lunchtime meeting at school. Of course I said yes! But little did I know that lunchtime meeting would end up changing the way I look at life and ultimately change how I look at other people.

At East Anchorage High School in Anchorage, AK I was immersed in a very diverse school atmosphere, with students coming from all different ethnic backgrounds, so naturally I was used to seeing different people around the hallway. Partners Club, however, showed me how fun life can be when you treat people with RESPECT! My first year in Partners Club I was part of a group of students who enjoyed interacting at lunch, practicing sports after school, and competing in high level sports competition. While that may seem like a pretty typical group of students, it was better because we were all about inclusion and making sure people felt accepted.

Besides the sports aspect of our Partners Club, we also ran a daily Espresso Shop. We had students with and without intellectual disabilities making drinks, taking orders, running the cash machine, and interacting with our customers. This inclusive coffee shop offered an opportunity to showcase our club — showing our student body how much fun we had together and emulating what friendship truly looks like when you recognize people for their abilities rather than their disabilities.

In the following years of high school I was a part of a movement of young leaders that wanted to see change in the school atmosphere  (and did!). Every week we held meetings, made announcements over the school system PA and wore our Partner’s Club tie-dye t-shirts on Tuesdays; we even hosted Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns to eliminate the R-word from our campus. Seeing teachers and students in the hall wearing tie-dye was amazing – everyone wanted one because they knew the t-shirts represented RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE.

When I went to college at Washington State University, I was welcomed with open arms and held a weeklong Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in my first year. I also hosted a three-day bowling event with Special Olympics athletes and WSU athletes (our school’s quarterback even showed up because his friends told him it was fun)!

In my second year at the University, the head coach of the University Bowling Team became a volunteer coach for my unified bowling team and offered to host a bowling tournament with the WSU student athletes from other sports teams. Finally after working with the WSU athletics department they decided they wanted to host the Special Olympics Washington East Region Basketball Tournament at our school!

These are just a few examples of how an inclusive school atmosphere can truly change the way students; teachers, administrators, and community members treat people inside and outside school. In the last six years Special Olympics has been an instrumental part in my life and I hope you too will embrace the movement, live a life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE and benefit from positive interactions with everyone you meet.

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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.