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.

“It’s a Wonderful Winning World”

Our third blog entry from a National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) member comes from Courtney Neil of Massachusetts. Courtney along with her sister, Alyssa Neil, has been a part of the National YAC since its inception in the Fall of 2008. Courtney recently attended the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece where she was a ‘Fan in the Stands’ for her sister, Alyssa. Here is what Courtney wrote about her experience in Greece:

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Athens, Greece is more than a city filled with beautiful scenery and vast history, it’s a city that opened its doors to a world where anything can happen; a world that is accepting, inclusive, and truly the best place to be.  From June 26-July 4, this monumental city hosted the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

The first thing I noticed in the city when I arrived was its beauty. The city was something I’ve only seen in pictures and it was an incredible sight to see.  The next thing I noticed was, I had never met so many friendly people, who would do anything to make me and my family feel welcome.  It was so heart-warming to feel like I belonged there, and not just intruding in their home.  It was the perfect setting for these monumental Games.

I have been with Special Olympics since I was 11 years old, competing alongside my sister Alyssa who has an intellectual disability. We have always played together, as a team, standing alongside each other, and being there if we needed someone to pick up the slack.  This past September was when we got the news that she had been chosen to represent the United States of America in Athletics.  This was the first time she would be on her own, showing what she had to offer the world and I couldn’t be more proud. Instead of standing behind her and supporting her, I was on the sidelines, watching my sister be the star she’s always been.

She was so amazing on that track, and she did such an amazing job that I cried every single time she ran overcome with happiness that she had done it on her own and all her hard work and training had paid off.  She wasn’t the only star on that field though; every single athlete that step foot on that track gave their all and exemplified the meaning of the Special Olympics.  One of my favorite races was a 100m Dash.  A boy who spent most of his day confined to a wheel chair stood up to stand alongside his competitors, and the race began.  He ran his race, it didn’t matter that the others were faster; he was going to do his best and finish that race.  Everyone in the stands started clapping in unison, and cheering and chanting, fans from America, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, Ecuador, and fans from everywhere, volunteers, and officials were cheering this athlete on.  It was so moving to see how enthusiastic all these people, from all these different backgrounds came together to support this athlete in his race.  The best moment was when he finished his race.  He threw his arms over his head, jumping, waving and smiling as he was getting situated back in his chair, and the crowd erupted with applause and rose to their feet jumping with him, celebrating his victory.  It was so wonderful to see all these people come together to support someone in their dream.  The funny thing was: I didn’t expect anything less from this amazing group of people.

I am so proud to be a part from such an incredible group of individuals.  I have immersed myself fully in this wonderful organization and have never been more proud to declare myself as a Unified Partner for the Special Olympics. Seeing so many others who commit themselves to the values and ideals of this organization, only gives me that much more confidence that I am doing something right and I will continue to fight for the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, and most importantly cheer them on!

Fans in the Stands- Athens, Greece

Our second blog entry from a National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) member comes from Emily Reyes of Missouri. Emily is a member of Special Olympics Missouri’s YAC and has been a part of the National YAC since its inception in the Fall of 2008. Emily recently attended the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece where she was a ‘Fan in the Stands’. Here is what Emily wrote about her experience in Greece:

Hey! This is Emily Reyes from Missouri. I am a member of the Missouri and National Youth Activation Committee. This summer I was able to attend the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. They were a blast!

Thousands of people from across the world came to be Fans in the Stands! Flags were waving in the air and the names of the athletes and countries were being chanted. That was just some of the things that you saw or heard when you stepped inside the venues.

I was able to watch the Team USA softball team play for gold! The USA gymnastics team were already there cheering when we got there. They let us borrow some of their fan wear and join them with all the dancing they were doing. They would cheer for the Team USA players and dance between the innings. During the song the YMCA one of the athletes changed up the words from “It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.” to “It’s fun to be part of TEAM USA.” I didn’t think that I could get goose bumps in 90 degree weather, but I do now.

At the aquatics venue the Fans in the Stands were pretty intense. As each country swam their fans would cheer their athletes on. I know that when the Team USA athletes hit the water their fans were on their feet cheering.

The Special Olympics World Summer Games were a sight to see! It didn’t matter where you were from, a smile was a smile, a laugh was a laugh, and Fans in the Stands were Fans in the Stands! I was proud to be a Fan in the Stand!

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My Goal: National Youth Activation Committee

One of our first blog entries by the National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) members. Kaitlyn Smith is a member of Special Olympics Colorado YAC. She participated at National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha, Nebraska during the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games. She recently joined the National YAC in the fall of 2010. Here is what her said about her first year on board the National YAC.

“Why did you decide to get involved with Special Olympics in your community, and what have you learned from this experience?” Staring at the question, I had so many thoughts and answers running through my head, but how could I possibly explain what I’ve learned from Special Olympics in a simple one-hundred words or less? When I think about Special Olympics, I don’t just think about an organization… It is so much more than that! It’s a family. This family has taught me so much, and helped me become who I am today. My journey through Special Olympics over the past four years has become what defines me as a person.

In December of 2009, I was introduced to the family of Special Olympics when I joined the Youth Activation Committee for Colorado. In a matter of months, I was selected to represent Special Olympics Colorado at the National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha Nebraska. The whole time I was in Nebraska, it felt surreal to me. Special Olympics was something that I loved, but when I was in a room packed with other people that had the same goals and feelings as me, I realized that Special Olympics was my passion. All of the sessions in Nebraska were led by a group of youth that had an amazing amount of drive, passion and enthusiasm. On one of the bus rides in Nebraska, I sat next to Clement, who was one of the youth helping run the Summit. I asked him questions about how he got involved, and he went on to tell me about how he was a member of the National Youth Activation Committee for Special Olympics and that this was just one of the things that they do. He told me all about the committee, and the amazing work that they have the opportunity to help with. It became my dream, and my goal to become a member.

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About a month after the Youth Activation Summit in Nebraska, I got an email with an application to join the Youth Activation Committee. I was so excited to apply, but I wanted my application to be flawless. I spent hours trying to deconstruct questions like “Why did you decide to get involved with Special Olympics in your community, and what have you learned from this experience?” in an answer one-hundred words or less, and find the perfect adults to write me recommendations. I had friends and teachers edit my application several times, to make sure it was perfect before mailing it in.

After I mailed in my application I checked my email daily, hoping for an answer. Then one day when I logged into my email, there was an email from Joanne Maldonado with the subject “NYAC Selection.” I quickly opened it and read “Your application stood out to the committee and I am pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for a two-year term as a new National Youth Activation Committee member.” I was beyond speechless. I read through the email several times before it finally sank in. I started calling everyone that knew I had applied and shared the amazing news with them (or rather screamed the amazing news at them, with much excitement). I knew this was an amazing opportunity for me to expand my love and passion for Special Olympics.

Now that I have been a member of the NYAC for eight months, looking back, I know that this has been one of the most amazing things that has ever happened in my life. Ever since my first NYAC meeting in Washington D.C., I immediately felt like a part of the “family”. As a new member (that didn’t really know what she was doing), I was asked to be a co-chair of the communications sub-committee and from there, all the members accepted me like I had been with them for years. I get to do work for Special Olympics at a national level that helps state programs around the country better the lives of their athletes. All the members on the NYAC have the same passion for Special Olympics and the same drive to make the lives of people with intellectual disabilities as inclusive and accepting as possible. The experiences that I have had so far as a NYAC member and the friendships I have gained are just the beginning. Special Olympics is my life, my love and my passion; and being a part of the National Youth Activation Committee will give me the opportunity to help Special Olympics in ways I didn’t know were possible.