Advocating Through Friendship

Special Olympics youth and athlete leaders were recently featured in a new book called Stand Up! 75 Young Activists who Rock the World and How You Can Too from John Schlimm. You can read all about the full book here, but we also wanted to share some of the amazing Special Olympics stories featured in the book. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to read these inspiring stories of youth changing the world through Special Olympics. And if you’re interested, you can purchase Stand Up! online.

Our first amazing story comes from youth leaders Danielle Liebl and Kaitlyn Smith… a story of true friendship! This is just a small preview, so make sure to check out the book for the full story! 

Kaitlyn & DanielleThe summer of 2010 is a summer that will always be remembered by the both of us. It was a summer of growth, new beginnings and cherished memories, but most importantly, it was the summer our lives intersected for the first time. That summer, Special Olympics hosted the 2010 National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha, Nebraska which both of us attended.

Danielle was an intern while Kaitlyn participated as a Unified Partner with her friend Kathleen. We briefly met at the summit when Danielle went up to Kaitlyn’s Partner, Kathleen, to wish her a happy birthday. Little did we know that we had each just met a lifelong friend. Later that year, Kaitlyn joined Special Olympics’ National Youth Activation Committee, in which Danielle was already a member. At our first meeting in Washington, D.C., we instantly bonded over our uncontrollable laughter, similar sarcasm and sense of humor.

Our friendship was growing, and our friendship meant the world to the both of us. The comfort to be ourselves when we were around each other was proof that we were perfect friends. We never felt compelled to try to impress anyone or be anything we weren’t. There was comfort in having conversations about anything, from schoolwork to philosophy.

There was one conversation in particular that has stuck with both of us and has really helped define our friendship. While in Florida attending a Special Olympics marketing and communications meeting, we found ourselves awake at one o’clock in the morning discussing our friendship and the impact it has had. After a lengthy conversation, we came to the realization that not once in our friendship had we ever looked at one another as an “athlete” or a “Partner.” That simply did not matter.

Over time, we came to realize that the friendship we had wasn’t just a normal friendship—it was something much more special. We both had the same ambitions in Special Olympics, similar personalities and we shared a goal to change the world. We were both on the same path, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that our friendship would help us support and guide each other in our work for this very special organization.

We realized that our friendship was not one that average youth got to experience very often. It was one that gave us hope on so many levels; not only did it give us hope in our everyday lives, but it also gave us hope for the future. Throughout our friendship, we realized that we wanted nothing more than for all youth to have the friendship that we have—one where friends don’t see the limits of each other, but rather where they see each other’s full potential.

We wanted to set an example for those around us, and Special Olympics gave us the perfect way to do it. When we first started our advocacy work, we barely realized we were doing it. We did nothing more than make our perfectly normal friendship visible to others.

In the beginning, we didn’t realize the impact it was having on others until the staff at Special Olympics brought it to our attention. Before we knew it, we were being asked to talk about our unique friendship to others in the Special Olympics community, and then to the broader community. We took on a new leadership role as we were now being leaders who set an example for a new way of thinking and living. We were the examples of how to live a unified life. Through our unified friendship that was developed out of Special Olympics, we discovered one of the most powerful ways of activism. Advocacy does not need to be an out-loud verbal expression that you proclaim to a crowd of people. Rather, we discovered that true advocates are the ones who pave a path to a way of life that is often at first unknown or mysterious to others, but ultimately leads to an incredible and fulfilling life. For us, something as simple as our friendship led us to pave this path on which we hope more youth will travel.

* Editor’s note: if you liked this story, take a look at the Discussion Guide that provides great questions to generate discussion in the classroom around this story.

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.