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.

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!

Experiencing Joy

Like many students, Morgan got to college and was ready to get more involved with her community. She began volunteering with Special Olympics Missouri through her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, and is now an active and engaged leader in the Special Olympics Movement.   

I had not been very involved with Special Olympics until I came to college.

I joined Alpha Sigma Alpha at Missouri Western State University, and one of our national philanthropies is Special Olympics. So, I started going to events and really enjoyed it. Seeing these wonderful people being so empowered and proud of themselves was awesome. Soon, I started to get more involved. I helped coach a middle school track team, I was on the Games Management Team for the Northwest area basketball tournament and the Games Management Team for the Spring Games here.

One of my very favorite memories of Special Olympics is from the Opening Ceremony at the basketball tournament. We had a line of men and women in uniform. The athlete with the torch went around the outside of the gymnasium and then up the middle of the line of people in uniform. All the while, “Standing Outside the Fire” by Garth Brooks was playing. I had tears in my eyes to see all these athletes with different skills and abilities and all these people here to support and cheer for them. I will continue to volunteer with Special Olympics because of the joy it brings me to see the athletes with such happiness and sense of accomplishment

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Unified Track and Field at Lunenburgh High School

As summer break comes to an end and school officially starts, we wanted to share a great post on Unified Sports from Special Olympics Massachusetts Unified Partner David Albertini of Lunbenburg High School. As David begins his senior year of high school, he shares his experience on the power of Unified Sports.  

Having unified track at our school last year was really fun. It was very nice to see so many people of different backgrounds and walks of life down on the track. I myself ran on the Lunbenburg High School track team, but having the unified track team there three days a week was quite an experience. It was  amazing to see all of the athletes at Lunenburg High School running on the same track. While we may be all of different speeds and skill levels, we were all athletes and we were all looking to compete. There was no labels on anyone except for their lane numbers. This is something anyone would appreciate, runner or not.

I have to admit that I was uncertain as to how this whole thing would work out, but after the first practice I realized we had a lot more in common that I thought.

We were all athletes and wanted to get better and win.

The final meet at the end of the season with all the unified track teams was a lot of work but it was all worth it. It was hot out and on an artificial turf surface, but it was so much fun to see every person on that track trying their best. There is something to be said about people who try their best and are proud of it. The biggest difference for me was that I was working the meet instead of running in the meet. Other than that, it had the same look and feel of any other meet I had been to, that was something else I hadn’t expected. I could relate to the athletes being nervous, excited, disappointed, and victorious at different points in the meet.

I think a lot of misconceptions and barriers came down during the meet.

At the end of the season we had our Spring track Banquet, as we do every year. It seemed natural that the Unified Sports Track Team would be included in the celebration along with the boys’ team and girls’ team. As the coaches handed out varsity letters and other awards, the excitement level increased and you could really see the pride and sense of accomplishment among the track athletes (all of them) and their families. All three teams had a great time and I think everyone learned a lot about each other. I think the second year will be even better. I hope all of our track programs continue to attract new members.

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Revealing the Champion

I recently competed in aquatics at the 2013 Special Olympics Virginia (SOVA) Summer Games in Richmond. This year’s Summer Games were different from previous, as heavy rainfall cancelled all the outdoor sports on both Friday and Saturday. While rain left most of the athletes with little to do, the athletes in Aquatics and Bowling were able to compete.

My delegation, Area 23 (Greater Prince William Area), had ten athletes and three coaches. While small, we brought home 19 medals out of the 30 events we competed in two days. We also had other members of our delegation come and cheer us on. It was a new experience for us.

Let's Go Greater Prince William Area

Let’s Go Greater Prince William Area

My individual events were the 25 meter Breaststroke, 50 meter Freestyle and Breaststroke. Coming into Summer Games, I had my mind focused on going all out to try and earn the opportunity to compete at the 2014 Special Olympics USA National Games. I knew that I needed to earn gold to have a shot. My first event final was the 25m Breaststroke. When the start signal went off, I swam as fast as I could and finished in first place with a time of 22.41 seconds. I was pretty excited that I won the first gold medal for my delegation.

Jerry winning the gold medal in 25m Breaststroke

Jerry winning the gold medal in 25m Breaststroke

Day two of the aquatics competition was energy packed day with the remaining event finals. My two event finals were the 50 meter Freestyle and Breaststroke. My 50 meter Freestyle event final was my first event of the day. I was nervous going into this final since I only swam twice in previous meets. When the start signal went off, I swam as fast I could and finished with the silver medal with a time of 46.52 seconds. I was happy with that result.

My 50 meter Breaststroke final was almost two hours after my 50 meter Freestyle final. When it was time for me to get into the water, I knew I was ready to go for the gold. When the start signal went off, I went into my zone of swimming fast and keeping my focus ahead. When I touched the wall, I looked straight at the scoreboard for my time. I won the gold medal with a time of 50.24 seconds. I was excited that I repeated for the third time in a row as the fastest 50 meter Breaststroke swimmer in Special Olympics Virginia.

Jerry winning the gold medal in 50M Breaststroke

After the aquatics competition was over, my team went back to the dorms. We were all proud of ourselves for what we accomplished over those two days of competition. I was proud of myself because I knew I had a chance of being selected for Team Virginia.

The Closing Ceremony was great and reminded me that I came to Summer Games on a mission and succeed in that mission. When Sunday came, it was kind of sad to be leaving Richmond after a great weekend of competition.

Every athlete from all five sports was happy that they got the opportunity to come down to Richmond. Regardless of competing or not competing, the smiles on the athletes’ faces are what are important of being a champion. In the end, there is a champion in us all and we revealed it in many different ways.

From the 2013 Special Olympics Virginia Summer Games

From the 2013 Special Olympics Virginia Summer Games

Farewell to the GYAS

The day is finally upon us – we have to bid farewell to all of our amazing youth leaders and chaperones and officially close the 2013 Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit.

The past 10 days have been energetic, thought provoking, inspiring and amazing. These passionate youth leaders from around the world are primed to make positive change in their communities and are ready to promote acceptance, respect and dignity for all people.

As we close out the 2013 GYAS, I wanted to leave you with a few words from Sashi Montaña and Brina Maxino of the Philippines. These dynamic and effervescent young women were elected by their peers to serve as the co-chairs for the 2013 – 2015 GYAS. In this role, they’ll help guide their fellow youth leaders in activating Special Olympics around the world and help to plan for the 2015 GYAS in Los Angles, California.

“My name is Sashi Montaña, youth partner for the Global Youth Activation Summit (GYAS), and I am writing this together with Brina Maxino, Special Olympics athlete, and we are from the Philippines.

We are thrilled and very honored to be elected as the co-chairs for the next GYAS in Los Angeles, World Summer Games 2015! We are beyond grateful for this opportunity to be part of this wonderful movement. We will continue to strive to do our best always.

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During the GYAS, we have learned many valuable and practical things and we have made awesome new friends from different delegations around the world who share the same mission and vision. We have created such beautiful memories together that we will never forget! It would be an understatement to say that it has been such an AMAZING summit!
We have definitely caught on the fire of Special Olympics and we want to pass it on to others as it was passed on to us. We want to lead and activate other youth like us to be agents of change.

Brina and I may not be as experienced and skilled as others may be because of their long involvement with Special Olympics, but we learned that what matters most is our hearts. We have the hearts to change the world. We believe that a difference can be made in this world if we have the love and the courage to help, be selfless, and do all that we can do. We will achieve our responsibilities with positive, motivated and changed hearts.

Many believe in us, we believe in ourselves and we believe in each other.”

Their spirit, passion and dedication is a true representation of the power and determination of our GYAS youth leaders.

Good luck to all as you head home to change the world!