Youth Voice at the Department of Education

On Tuesday March 25, Special Olympics Project UNIFY staff, along with youth leaders and educators from across the country, presented to the Department of Education on the power and growth of Project UNIFY over the last year. Special Olympics athlete and youth leader Kabir Robinson from Special Olympics Washington, joined Delaware youth leader Connor Moore and educators Erin Trzcinski and Tom Ledcke, from Delaware and Washington, respectively, to share their personal experiences with Project UNIFY.

Kabir’s impactful remarks are below. Stay tuned on the blog for more powerful experiences from Connor, Tom and Erin, or watch the entire presentation here

Introductory Remarks

20140325_094050_resized[2]Hi everyone. My name is Kabir Robinson. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am a member of the National Youth Activation Committee. I have been involved with Special Olympics for 3 to 4 years. I joined because I just want to be treated equally and be happy. I also want to be a better leader in sports.

I have a twin brother. When we were in middle school, he played soccer. He went to practices with his friends and played in games every weekend. I really wanted to play too, but I couldn’t. At school, people were always talking about how cool soccer was. Sometimes I got to play with my friends at middle school, but I wanted to play soccer for real and be on a team.

I felt lonely and left out and sad that I couldn’t play. It wasn’t fair that my brother could be on a team and I couldn’t because I wasn’t fast enough. I just wanted to be happy.

Then, when I went to Nathan Hale High School, one of the coaches for Unified soccer came to my classroom. I found out that people were having meetings about Unified soccer and I decided to go. I was so happy and excited about being on a team. I got more and more excited until we started practices, which were awesome. My team won 10 games. It is so fun to be part of a team.

All I want to say is that I was never fast enough in 7th and 8th grade. But in 9th grade, I did it!

Also, everyone in this room is awesome.

I love public speaking to people about sports for those with and without intellectual disabilities. I love to talk. It is awesome and a lot of fun to speak to people out in public. I love talking to all of you about sports and people with intellectual disabilities. It’s been a lot of fun!

 

Testimonial

Online StreamI have made a lot of friends. This means a lot to me. In school, I just want to learn new things, so I asked my teacher to sign me up for mainstream classes in Spanish and art.

I also want to be with the other sophomores, not just my special education class, because my intellectual disability doesn’t define me. I am a sophomore first. So now, at school assemblies, I sit with all the other 10th graders!

Since Project UNIFY, I am happier and more confident.

Through working with my friends on Project UNIFY, I have learned about myself. I have things to say and people want to hear them.

A leader helps people gets things done. They make you see what good ideas you have. They help you organize your ideas and make something happen. Inclusive Youth Leadership is important to me because it helps me feel included in every way. Then I can help others feel included and I care a lot about other people.

To spread inclusion around makes me happy.

A Life Changing Moment

During the Special Olympics Montana Fall Leadership Conference, Glen shared his story with a Special Olympics Montana board member about how Special Olympics saved his life. He wrote his story down so that we could share it with others. Below is a summary of what he shared.

Glen’s Story:

I am Private First Class Matthew Robocker (also known as Glen) of the 495th CSSB stationed in Libby, MT. I live in the small town of Eureka. Even if you don’t know me, I still need to say thank you…you saved my life.

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I was going into the seventh grate and I got into a fight with my best friend. I secluded myself from my first childhood friends and slowly started hanging out with other people. I met a group of kids that I thought were cool and I wanted to fit in with them. It went from doing cool things, like skateboarding outside at school, to not such cool things like, partying and making bad choices. I escalated in my partying to the point that I had a real problem.

To make a long story short, I go in trouble with the law. These “friends” blamed me for some things that I did not do, but could not prove that I didn’t because I was there. Just to give you an idea of the severity of the trouble, I ended up being convicted of 3 felonies and 4 misdemeanors for theft. I was required to do 240 community service hours and serve 2 years of probation. I was still a young teenager!

I went through this all and eventually gained back my original set of friends who I hold dear to this day. I had all but 20 hours of my community service done and nearly all of my probation completed. My probation officer met with me on a Monday and said if I can keep my grades up and can get my hours all taken care of, he would take me off probation and I wouldn’t have to see him again. The very next day I had a conversation with Greg Grove (SOMT Local Program Coordinator). He asked me if I would could and would accompany him along with another student and two athletes to Bozeman, MT to a Project UNIFY Youth Summit. I told him I would do it if he signed a paper saying that I did the remainder of my community service hours. He agreed and we were off.

This was my freshman year of school. We loaded up early in the morning and headed off to Bozeman. I  thought I would never have anything to do with Special Olympics again after that weekend, but I had such a great time my world was changed. We got back home and I was off probation and I had stopped partying like I was before. Greg continued to give me more information about being a Unified partner, and at first I was hesitant. But when I met some athletes, I was saved. I saw that not a single athlete had a frown on their faces and they were all so happy. They were even happy to see me, for what reason, I don’t know. The thought came into my head at that moment that I would always have something to do with Special Olympics.

I have been involved for almost 4 years now. Greg is one of my best friends; he helped me find what I wanted to do in life. On June 11, 2013, I enlisted in the Army National Guard. While I have only been enlisted for a short time, I have “ranked up” twice. Also, because of the moral support of Mr. Grove, I have a beautiful fiancé, wonderful life, and the best friends and family I could have ever asked for. Most importantly I have my friends from Special Olympics Montana! Thank you so much for getting me back on the right path, I truly believe with all my heart if it wasn’t for you and your help, I would be stuck in the same place I was when I started sharing this story with you.

I am so thankful, and look forward to our journeys together in the future!

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

A Focus on Value and Respect

Day four at the 2013 Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit – youth leaders came together to celebrate the power and importance of young people in the Special Olympics Movement.

Read below to hear about some of the amazing activities from the day.

Today, GYAS leaders discussed and identified the values that they see in Special Olympics Project UNIFY. For each value, youth either described its meaning or shared personal experiences corresponding to that value. Through this, we were able to articulate how our unique experiences combine in creating this “for the youth, by the youth” movement. Read a brief sample of the work below to understand the values of Project UNIFY according to our GYAS teams:

  • TEAMWORK — “Teamwork is very important because we are shaped by the people around us. We South Africans believe in the spirit of Ubuntu.” – Vincent Ramorwesi & Thapelo Nthite, South Africa
  • COURAGE — “It takes courage for one to stand by the athletes no matter what problems they face.” – Peter Kamade & Francis Gitau, Kenya
  • THE SPIRIT OF SPORT — “Whether you win or lose at the end, you should always enjoy the process.” – Ngan Ieng Chan & Io Seng Lei, Macau
  • OPPORTUNITY — “Giving youth a voice.” – Giovanna De Luca, Italy
  • ACCEPTANCE — “It fosters positive attitudes towards people with disabilities as it shows their capabilities and talents.” – Rahma Aly & Farah Ghaffar, Egypt
  • RESPECT — Respecting everyone’s difference because ‘we are more alike than different.” – Vashti Thompson & Jodi Cornish, Bahamas

Following an engaging “Youth Do Change the World” session, GYAS leaders headed to Alpensia Resort to watch competitions, explore the Festival Village and participate in the Global Youth Rally, a fun and interactive event that shared the messages of acceptance, unity and friendship with about 900 domestic (Korea) and international students.

The theme of the Global Youth Rally was ‘Tied Together’ and encouraged rally participants to bond together to create awareness for Special Olympics and initiate meaningful social change in their communities, countries and beyond. In an inspiring moment amongst lots of dancing, singing and fun, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, issued a call to participants, “Who is the next revolutionary… you are! Your time is now. The last great human rights revolution is being lead by you.”

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words… check out a photo album that shares some of the great memories from our adventures today.

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Jumping Off A Bridge

Written by Evan Heller, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Finance Intern, Summer 2012

When I first came to D.C. to begin my internship with Special Olympics Project UNIFY, I thought this summer would be the bridge that would take me over the tumultuous waters of indecision and ground me safely on a professional track. I look back now and realize the reason I have grown so much in the past month is because I stopped thinking of this summer as a bridge; I started thinking of it as a diving board.

I decided I didn’t want to walk across the bridge and at the end have nothing more to show for it than another item on my résumé. There is a difference between making an appearance and making a difference, and I wanted to leave my mark: so I jumped. As I fell, I saw that the water—which from afar looked murky and unsafe—was actually a golden sea of opportunities. I found that there is so much this city, and especially this organization, has to offer, and all I had to do was be ready and seize every chance that came my way.

I got paired with a great mentor who constantly found ways to make sure I would leave this summer equipped with the tools I needed to succeed. He and all the other staff that I worked with were not only receptive to my ideas, but willing to help me bring them to fruition. That support spoke volumes about the trust that Special Olympics invested in my work, and I wanted to prove that their trust wasn’t wasted on me. Too many people stop at what’s expected of them; I was determined to exceed all expectations.

It wasn’t always easy—I had to work hard and at times step out of my comfort-zone. I learned that I not only had to make the necessary connections, but sometimes ask outright whether I could be involved in a project with which I was interested. I also gained a technical proficiency in several new areas. But by making these leaps, I was able to get my feet wet in many different aspects of Special Olympics, and began to develop all these opportunistic skills.

I am so grateful for the all the opportunities I had this summer. I was able to volunteer at Camp PALS, speak at the National Student Council Association conference, advocate on Capitol Hill, be a panelist on the What You Do Matters Leadership Summit student panel, attend the CRPD Senate Hearing, and observe UMass Boston’s Camp Shriver. I have been able to make so many long-lasting connections with people, as professionals and as friends, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

College: Time to Get Involved

As the school year comes to a close, we’re continuing our series on youth leadership from high school to college. Today’s blog comes from Brad Efune, National Youth Activation Committee member and sophomore at the University of Arizona.

Graduating high school and embarking on the journey called college is probably one of the most terrifying and exciting times in any young persons life. The experiences that lay ahead of you are those that will form you into the person that you will one day become.

So what is the key to making sure your transition from high school to college goes smoothly and successfully? I think the answer to that question is: you have to do what you know how to do, and what makes you feel comfortable.

Students who are actively involved in Project UNIFY or the Special Olympics movement in general need to STAY ACTIVE in youth involvement. Surrounding yourself with people that have common interests with you is the best and easiest way to make friends and acquaintances.

When I left high school and jumped into college life at the University of Arizona, I quickly made it my mission to find the nearest Special Olympics program director and get as involved as possible. I reached out to other students on campus who were involved and quickly made friendships. Eventually I found a group of students who had been previously involved in Special Olympics Youth Leadership Committees and we began working on getting Project UNIFY spread throughout high schools in the Tucson area.

The jump from high school to college can be easier than most say, you just need to remember to surround yourself with those that have your best interests at hand and enjoy the same activities as you. Involvement with Special Olympics should not end when you graduate high school, instead it should begin when you enter college.

Contact your area director and continue to be INVOLVED!

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels: