The Power of Project UNIFY

I recently attended a Project UNIFY Rally for Special Olympics New Jersey and Jersey City Public Schools. It was an energetic and wonderful atmosphere at the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College. 40 schools were present and each was represented by 39 students. Each school put on a performance about respect and accepting all abilities. The performances that stood out to me – and really helped to energize the crowd – were done by Rafael de J. Cordero, P.S. #37, Nicolous Copernicus School, P.S. #25, Dr. Michael Conti, P.S. #5, Martin Center of Arts, M.S. #41, Anthony J. Infante, and P.S. #31.

The performance by P.S. #37 was a song about respecting people of all abilities and sevenstudents had letters that spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The performance by P.S. #25 was a song about being amazing just the way you are. The students from P.S. #5 dressed nicely and used body language in their performance. The students from M.S. #41 used the following slogan, “You respect me, I respect you … we are all beautiful people!” P.S. #31 performed the song, When you wish upon a star and focused on the acceptance of all abilities.

Dr. Michael Fowlin gave an entertaining performance that had a serious message for everyone in the audience about people with different abilities.  The mere feeling of energy and noise from the crowd filled you with excitement. It was a celebration of all abilitieswithin Jersey City Public Schools.

While I didn’t take any video, there was a great video blog done by My Autism Voice that shares some of the amazing performance from the Jersey City Schools Project UNIFY Rally:

If all state programs did an event like this, their school communities could benefit greatly – impacting not only on the students but entire school communities.

Of course there are a few things that need to be in place before such an event to occur. Based on the rally I attended, here’s a guide to putting on your own great Project UNIFY Rally:

  • First, you need the support of a school board so you can have full participation from local schools. You’ll also need a venue and funding to put on the event.
  • Next, each school would need to hold a competition to select which students would represent the school and perform for the event. Performances should be youth-led and focus on respect, inclusion, unity or acceptance. The performances should include students of all abilities.
  • A great tool to help schools plan for the rally is Get Into It, which helps teachers with explaining and teaching the different aspects of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Movies that Move is another great tool to use in preparation for a rally because it is a visual way for students to learn about respect, unity, and accepting all abilities.
  • Now bring all the various pieces together along with a great and energetic EMC and some VIPs and you have will have a fun, great and powerful Project UNIFY Rally. Also, make sure you recognized the Unified Sports teams from the schools as a way to show how sports and respect go hand in hand. Just remember to have a great and fun time.

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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.

Courage to Make a Difference

Last month, Special Olympics Idaho staffer Laurie LaFollette had the opportunity to speak at the Congressional Award Ceremony in Idaho. The Congressional Award is given to young Americans between 14- and 23-years-old who set goals in four program areas: volunteer public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration. Ms. LaFollette spoke about the power of youth volunteerism and the ability for young people to make a difference in their community. Enjoy a portion of her moving speech below.

“Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve …you only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Everyone has the capacity to give and every person can make an impact in society, regardless of age, education or income.  I believe that giving is core to being human.

There are about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old that make up 18 percent of the global population.  The global youth presents a significant force for good, and youth volunteerism can be part of the solution to many problems faced by the world.  Youth volunteerism contributes to social development and cultivates a caring generation.

At Special Olympics, we also recognize the power of youth.  We have a program called “Project UNIFY,” which is school-based program in the United States that will help Special Olympics become a leading cause among youth and develop the next generation of Special Olympics leaders.  Among the greatest values of the Special Olympics movement is its power to change attitudes of people who are fearful of, or misunderstand people with special needs.  This power is most effective in schools, among young people who have the potential to form an acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities that can last throughout their lives.  By engaging youth without intellectual disabilities, we are shaping future generations of tolerance and acceptance for all people.  Project UNIFY seeks to create a legion of young people who are leaders in their communities for Special Olympics and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities.

Young people, Like Soeren Palumbo, who at the age of 18 gave an eye opening speech against the word “retard” at his high school, and became a leader in the global movement to eliminate the use of the word, using the internet and social networking.  Palumbo, inspired by his sister who has an intellectual disability, is now taking that conversation to the campus of Notre Dame University, launching a global university-based volunteerism, advocacy and fundraising initiative called “SO College.”

I am so appreciative of the work and mission of the Congressional Award.  It provides an opportunity for empowering young people to take a greater responsibility for their own lives, to discover new talents, to advocate on behalf of others and to become a part of the community.  The Congressional Award also recognizes that it is our youth who have the idealism, courage and passion to make a difference.

You are being recognized today because you share a strong belief that you can make a difference.  You are leaders amongst your peers and you are in a position to also inspire your peers to become the best they can be.  Showing, that if given an opportunity, every person has the capacity to be successful and that human greatness is defined more by the spirit than the body.

I hope that by achieving the Congressional Award today that you have learned that you too are a champion, and to never limit what you can do and never give up on doing good.  Don’t let your age, your circumstances or anything you perceive to be a challenge, discourage you from taking that next step, to make a difference, to change the world one step at a time.  If you do this, we will be led to the moment written about by a French philosopher many years ago:

“Someday, after conquering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Finally, I say to the audience, if you despair of finding true role models in the human family, if you are tempted to believe that the quest for a better world is futile, look around you and see the faces of our Congressional Award winners here today.  You will see focus.  You will see the best in humanity.  You will see these faces and be refreshed.

Mrs. Shriver, a Legacy of Courage

The following blog post was written by Clint Armistead, former National Youth Activation Committee member and Peace Corps Volunteer.

What can I say about Mrs. Shriver that hasn’t already been said? Amazing, determined, strong, beautiful, joyous, courageous. When asked to write about Eunice Kennedy Shriver (aka EKS for those unfamiliar with the Special Olympics acronyms) for the Project UNIFY Blog, I felt daunted by the task of writing about this amazing woman and doing her justice.

However, I think we’ve all felt daunted at sometime in our life, like we see the world about to crumble and we can do nothing about it. The forebodingness of it all, like attempting the impossible, that life plays against us and wants us to fail. Whether we’re talking about the world economic crisis or finding a job or facing the undefeated football team or overcoming writer’s block trying to write a blog about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, we can all get overwhelmed with the pressure, the thought, the certainty of failure.

When I get to these points in life, and as a young adult entering the “real world” I find myself in this arena often, I like to repeat my favorite quote by Eunice Kennedy Shriver—it’s also the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I find these words so simple and yet, so powerful, just like the woman who spoke them. I don’t know if Mrs. Shriver thought about this oath as much as I have but I know she lived it and I know she won.

Sometimes life boils down to courage. Do you have the strength and determination to wake up in the morning and fight the troubles of the day? From the worldwide battle against hunger to the schoolyard torment of a bully, each requires a great deal of fortitude (or guts). For Special Olympics athletes, coaches, volunteers, youth leaders and family members, EKS was an example of courage in action.

Around the world this Saturday, September 24, Special Olympics will celebrate the life and courage of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, without whom, millions of lives would remain unchanged. Amongst all her accomplishments, including founding Special Olympics, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, papal knighthood and even having her face on a U.S. coin, her greatest accomplishment is inspiring others. She inspires Special Olympics athletes to compete to the best of their abilities on the field, in the classroom, at home and in the workplace. She inspires small non-profits and advocates for social change. She inspires anyone with a dream. She inspires me.

So celebrate with us this year, if you’re in or around Washington, D.C., and join us in front of the White House as part of the Nickelodeon Day of Play. From around the world, you can celebrate in one simple way: do something courageous. Play with the kid down the street who everyone else thinks is weird. Build a sports complex for Unified Sports competition or start a Camp Shriver afterschool program.

Join organizations and volunteers who share in the same vision of an accepting world for all people regardless of differences and become the Eunice Kennedy Shriver of our generation. Celebrate Special Olympics, celebrate the inspiration, celebrate Mrs. Shriver, and celebrate the courage to face the daunting challenges of the day.

Special Olympics Celebrates Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day & Worldwide Day of Play

This Saturday, September 24th is the 2nd Annual Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day (aka EKS Day), which honors the amazing and inspirational founder of Special Olympics. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a trail blazing leader who broke down barriers to improve the lives of millions of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Each year on the 4th Saturday in September events of unity and acceptance around the world will celebrate the vision, commitment and achievements of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her tradition of making a difference. The theme for this year’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day is Play Unified to Live Unified.

Learn more about Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

This year we’re commemorating the amazing impact of Eunice Kennedy Shriver by partnering with Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play and CELEBRATING AN ENTIRE DAY DEDICATED TO ACTIVE PLAY!!

You and your family are invited to Washington, DC for a day
of family-friendly activities, sports & entertainment!

Saturday September 24, 2011
10 am – 4 pm
The Ellipse at the National Mall

Since we love to play (especially when we play UNIFIED), we’ll be at The Ellipse on The National Mall in Washington, DC all-day hosting a Unity Dance Party, demonstrating the amazing skills of our Special Olympics athletes in floor hockey and tennis and remembering the impact of Special Olympics’ founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Need another reason to come? Check out this fun video featuring some of Nick’s biggest stars and a certain First Lady! They’ll be there, so come join in the fun! (Plus, some big sports stars, like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Abby Wambach and Damien Woody, will be there, so you won’t want to miss it!)

So if you’re in the Washington, DC area on September 24, grab your friends and family and head to the National Mall for a fun-filled day of play! Plus, stop by the Special Olympics Project UNIFY tent and mention you read this blog post and we’ll give you a SWEET Project UNIFY prize!

Don’t fret if you’re not in the DC area – there are still tons of ways to get involved with Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day and Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play:

Today I’m playing unified to live unified in celebration of Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day and Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play. Join me, be a fan of @Special Olympics and let’s get out and play! http://www.eksday.org

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.

Inclusion: A Necessity for Fully Engaged Students

The following blog post was written by a unified pair of youth leaders who participate in local and national youth engagement and activation conferences to enhance their communication, leadership, and advocacy skills.  These youth continue to collaborate and motivate other youth to become active in our pathway towards social justice for all. 

Looking at the aspects that create schools where students are able to express their ideas, engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, and develop a collaborative relationship with the staff to address the needs of both students and teachers is challenging, yet important.  One word that is indirectly included in each of those aspects is inclusion.  Inclusion can be defined in many ways each catering to a certain situation.  However, there are common characteristics that we can define as being inclusive: students of all abilities, religions, gender and race are offered equitable opportunities for academic, social and physical growth; students perceive their peers as valued individuals with unique assets to the school community; everyone is included in the schools’ student body, regardless of popularity, athletic ability or academic achievement.

Perspective from a youth leader with an intellectual disability:
There are many experiences of authentic inclusion at our schools.  When I attended High School, I wanted to join an afterschool club.  One of the clubs I was interested in was the Drama Club because I like to act.  I asked the teacher, Mr. Pody, if I could join and he said yes!  The Drama Club met once a week and we did acting exercises as well as performances.  We also put on a big show at in the spring and the entire school attended.  Mr. Pody gave me a good acting part in the show and showcased my abilities.  I played a big supporting role and I opened the show with a monologue too.

Being a part of a club made me feel included and a true participant in the school life.  It gave me something to look forward to every week!  My Drama Club friends would say hi to me in the hallways and it was a great feeling.  I think that if it were not for the Drama teacher, Mr. Pody, I would not have been able to be a part of itMr. Pody believed I could do it and he did not exclude me because of my disability.  By including me, he gave me one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Another example of inclusion was when I joined a Special Needs cheerleading team.  Many high school students volunteered to help with practice every Sunday.  One of these high school students was Kaitlin and she became my good friend.  Kaitlin was very helpful and really believed that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.  Bringing together young people with and without disabilities allowed us to spend time together and gain understanding of one another.

Sometimes people are afraid to be near people who are different, but once they see that we are just people, they can understand that there’s no reason to be afraid.  Kaitlin saw that I was a teenager just like herself, and we had a lot in common.  We laughed, told jokes, and shared secrets.  We are still good friends today.  Kaitlin is now a youth leader in her high school and has been inspired to join Special Olympics Project UNIFY®.

Based on our personal experiences, below is a list for how others can work towards authentic inclusion in their school:

  • Implementation of a Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Club, which works to educate, motivate and activate young people to become agents of positive change.
  • Organization of a Spread the Word to End the Word Event to raise awareness about the derogatory use of the word, “retard” and its hurtful impact on people with disabilities.
  • Education about the history of the disability movement will show students the individuals who have made strides in this movement of acceptance, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
  • Coordinate a “Fans in the Stands” Event at a local Special Olympics competition.