I am a Change Agent

Olivia Jones, a Special Olympics Wisconsin Youth Activation Committee member shares a great reflection on how Project UNIFY has impacted her. Without further a due, here is Olivia’s Reflection.

I didn’t know I had the power to influence the mindset of hundreds of people until Project UNIFY® came to influence my own. It was my freshman year when my social studies teacher first introduced my classmates and I to the idea of joining hands and becoming a Project UNIFY school in order to improve the school climate.

Our community was located in a small town, just outside of Madison. The vast majority of people residing there were middle class, white families; most of whose lives revolved around the sports their children were involved in rather than raising tolerance and promoting acceptance. It wasn’t hard to see that our community wasn’t exactly encouraging the proactive UNIFY point of view.

Still, my teacher pushed harder and harder for her students to jump on the Project UNIFY bandwagon, and I began to consider it. When myself and a few other students finally surrendered to her pleas and joined the movement, we realized just how little our fellow peers and even ourselves knew about the true definition of unity.

Before this club, I hadn’t had relationships with students with intellectual disabilities. I’d never known about their weekend plans, or the hobbies we shared. I found I didn’t know anything about these kids that I passed in the hallway every day.

Without Project UNIFY I might’ve never learned that my friend Aaron could draw just about any Disney character you could name, or that my friend Dylan knew the batting stats on every single Brewer’s player. Because of Project UNIFY I discovered things not only about others, but about myself too. I learned that I had the tenacity to overcome the challenges I faced. I could impact a school of students who dropped the R word just as many times as they texted the letters O M G in the middle of class. Because of Project UNIFY my peers began to think before they spoke, they began to look at disabilities with a different attitude, they began gain knowledge on differences, all the while losing the ignorance they once so greatly possessed.

It’s because of Project UNIFY that I have a place in my high school where I’m always greeted with warm hugs and smiles no matter how bad my hair looks that day, or how many math problems I failed to solve. To me, Project UNIFY has acted as the gift that continues to give. From this start-up club I can now say I’ve taken the Polar Plunge, not once, but twice. I have recently just completed my first year on the Youth Activation Committee, and have formed bonds with other students like myself who are both passionate and positive about the cause they are advocating for. Even more so, I have been presented with numerous volunteer opportunities.

On top of all of those things, I am now closing on my first internship with Special Olympics Wisconsin. Over this past summer at Headquarters, I’ve gained independence, self-worth, and other skills to last me a lifetime. Each of those achievements date back to my freshman year when I was first approached about a little known organization with tremendous possibilities. Project UNIFY has moved mountains within me, and has forced me to consider myself as change agent in the world. This organization has touched kids across the nation; it’s changed lives. Through Project UNIFY I have seen a picture of society that generations to come can be happy to live in.DSC07301

Leaders of Tomorrow

Day One of the Special Olympics North America Conference ended a positive note for the 90 youth leaders. All 90 of them will be going back to their states after the conference concludes with new ideas on Here what some of the youth leaders will be doling after the conference in their states.

Kaitlyn and Matthew from S.O. Kansas: “We are going back to our school to start up Project UNIFY for next year.”

Julia and Perez from S.O. District of Columbia: “We are go to push Special Olympics DC into the schools. Special Olympics DC has a great community base of older athletes.but are not really in schools. So we are going to make a big push to Special Olympics in the DC Schools.”

Madison and Tori from S.O. Kentucky: “We are try our best to bring more people into our local Special Olympics program. We are also going to do our best to start up a Project UNIFY club at our school.”

Marta and Grace from S.O. Wisconsin: “We are try to unified our communities around our school communities.”

Just the beginning…

As students finish up their final tests and get ready for summer to officially begin, we wanted to share an amazing reflection from Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee Chair, Karolyn Sundberg. As Karolyn readies herself to transition from high school to college, she shares some powerful insights on the positive impact of Project UNIFY throughout her high school experience.  

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

As senior year and my time as Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee chair comes to a close – this quote offers advice that I will soon have to take.

Reflecting on this past year as Chair of the Youth Activation Committee (YAC) – there have been countless wonderful memories – new experiences, goals reached, friendships made, and people who were inspired to come together for a truly amazing cause.  I am so incredibly proud of and moved by the devoted young leaders of our SORI Project UNIFY movement;  so proud of those individuals who have been so dedicated to working on all of our projects this year. Now our goal is to continue to reach out to youth in our state to spread the ideas of inclusion, unity, and acceptance.

I am exceedingly grateful for such a wonderful experience.

My involvement with Special Olympics began in the fall of my junior year.  I was  assigned to help plan the SORI annual Youth Forum and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere that surrounded Special Olympics and everyone involved.  While at this point there were only about 15 members and meeting attendance was sparse, we still began to see how powerful and motivating youth could be when it came to promoting inclusion and unity in their high schools. At my first YAC meeting of this year – I was awed to see how many students had eagerly come out to get involved with the program.  In just one year, our YAC had grown so large that it was divided into 5 regions, where each region was assigned to different tasks and projects.  Through the YAC, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the kindest, hardest working students from every corner of the state.  All of us had one common purpose – to speak out for equality and acceptance among students with and without disabilities.

I remember at the first YAC meeting  – it seemed as if there was so much to be done.  However, I never would have imagined that we would have been able to achieve some of the things we did this year. The YAC planned and organized a Youth Forum for athletes, partners and coaches to learn about ways to promote inclusion and inspire unity. We planned and organized the very first Middle School Youth Forum in the Nation. We created a statewide newsletter to share our stories of success and spread the word about our cause. Also, we successfully encouraged high school students to participate and support the Torch Run Plunge and Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in their schools.  We had record numbers participate in both of events.

Most importantly, this year as the YAC chair, I witnessed how Special Olympics touches the lives and hearts of so many people in so many ways.  I experienced firsthand the difference it makes. Special Olympics taught me to embrace differences and recognize talents in everyone.  I now realize the importance of the positivity and support Special Olympics offers to everyone and the confidence one can find inwardly after becoming involved. I continue to be inspired by the work the SORI YAC is doing and am honored to have had the chance to be a part of such a great group of people.

I know that my involvement with Special Olympics is something that will not end, and I am so thankful for the opportunity.

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum

2013 Special Olympics Rhode Island Youth Forum

2013 Special Olympics Global Development Summit – The Youth Voice

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Clement Coulston and Rachel Ward, Global Youth Facilitators for the 2013 Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit participated in the inaugural Global Development Summit, which gathered 300 world leaders from areas of government, business, education, economic and social development, media … Continue reading

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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Together We Are Greater

The following guest blog comes from Juan L., a partner at Neuqua Valley High School and a co-chair of the Special Olympics Illinois Youth Activation Committee.

Everyone was cheering, and people surrounded us yelling congratulations, giving us high fives, and big hugs. We felt like we were on top of the world for a moment, it was truly one of the best feelings in the world.

Our names are Juan and Liam and we are two of the co-chairs for Project UNIFY. The cheering and praise was a result of our fantastic first place prize in our schools dance competition, Neuqua Knows It Can Dance. It was our third year doing the dance competition and it has always been a blast with a mix of friends with intellectual disabilities and their peers.

This year we wanted it to be perfect, so we started early practicing and practicing till we coud do the dance in our sleep. Although, we had never won before and didn’t expect to this year (since we exceeded the maximum amount of people in a group allowed) it came to our surprise when they announced the winners of this years dance competition. The moment they said “PEER PARTNER ROCKSTARS” our entire group erupted in cheers and all of our peers were equally ecstatic.

Looking back on that night I could truly appreciate the hard work we all put into it, to show that people with intellectual disabilities are able to accomplish the same things that other people can do. When we were talking about that night, Liam said his favorite part was when everybody cheered for him. In our society many people don’t realize the potential and awesome talent that Special Olympics athletes have and it feels great to finally be recognized.

That entire week we were treated like royalty in the halls and everyone kept telling us how great we looked and how well organized it was. Liam and I felt so proud not only on our victory, but on our school’s support. It is good to know that our school not only has a program for students with intellectual disabilities, but encourages them as well. The last day of that week we were able to perform at the school pep rally in front of four thousand students. I think that was when we really shined, and not just because of our neon costumes.

Our dance not only showed that we had mad dance skills, but that students with intellectual disabilities are capable of amazing things and that together we can be even greater.

Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

This past weekend, our National Youth Activation Committee members were here in Washington, DC for the bi-annual National YAC meeting! 19 youth leaders, along with 14 mentors from their local state Special Olympics Programs, came together from around the country to brainstorm ideas and plan for a great year of projects and activities.

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As always – I was blown away by these amazing and inspiring youth leaders who help catapult our movement of acceptance and respect into schools and towns across the country. While there were so many examples of their incredible leadership throughout the weekend, I had to share the results of one particular activity during a professional development session.

In the activity, each National YAC member was asked to develop a quote that expressed their ideas, thoughts, values, feelings or attitudes about Special Olympics, friends, family and/or courage.

The results are amazing. These young people are truly the leaders of today… but they will most certainly be the leaders of the future as well.

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“Special Olympics isn’t just for people with disabilities… Special Olympics has helped me find my voice, build my confidence and identify my passion.”
Kaitlyn Smith, Colorado

“Stop watching every step you take. Close your eyes and let the world surprise you.”
Shelby Lynne Dial, Wyoming

“Everyone can help create change; you just have to believe in yourself.”
Heather Glaser, Wyoming

“Let the way you walk and talk exemplify who you truly are.”
Daniel Fink, Washington

“Leaders don’t follow the path of the past; leaders make their own path. If they are a true leader, no matter the obstacles, they will prevail.”
Dallas Lopez, Texas

“Everyday a new challenge awaits, it’s up to us to find the right path.”
Brady Platt, South Carolina

“Our memories define us: every laugh, every kiss, every tear is a part of who we are. So let’s strive to become better people starting with our memories.”
Rachel Alm, Hawaii

“I am nothing without my Special Olympics family – they encourage and inspire me to be better.”
Kelsey Foster, South Carolina

“Life with your three musketeers always makes you happy.”
James Kweon, Idaho

“Change should be respected, not hated.”
Bernice Higa-French, Hawaii

“Each of us is created with a seed deep within. When you embrace the sunshine of all circumstances and be open to the shower of others’ influence, only then will a beautiful flower grow that will be a gift to the world.”
Danielle Liebl, Minnesota

“There are four words on the Special Olympics medal: skill, courage, sharing and joy. Skill is the least important because the other three are what win you the gold.”
Jordan Schubert, Philadelphia

“I want to live in a world where madness is meditated, nonsense is valued, challenges are embraced and fostering creativity and imagination is our greatest objective.”
Evan Heller, Massachusetts

“Life as a star is like reaching a certain goal. Our favorite YAC family is like a huge star – above and beyond.”
Tanealya Hueth, Montana