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Innovators of the Week: Paola and Maria

Around the world, Youth Leaders with and without intellectual disabilities are leading community-based projects for inclusion. Paola and Maria, two Special Olympics youth leaders from El Salvador, share their experiences working together to create change.

A group of 13 athletes and representatives standing an kneeling in two rows outside.

We are María and Paola. Working on this project was an experience where we did not think we would get along so well or that both of us would understand each other. We especially did not expect that we would understand and know how to respect the opinions of each other.

María is a very creative girl, very ingenious, and above all very active.

Paola knows me super well. We have played, worked, and talked a lot. We have worked with other young people together.

We approached a school where all students signed up to participate with us. The teachers were there and supported us, including the teachers of María’s school.

Instructor is teaching a young girl on the court; the instructor is teaching the young girl how to hold a tennis racket.

As a Unified companion, what struck me was that the young people who participated with us had many questions. I could see that Paola learned about individuals with intellectual disabilities and how to treat children with Down syndrome. It is clear with all the stereotypes that many people are not educated on how to treat people with intellectual disabilities. Young people with more awareness do try to help schools with less awareness. Maria’s school had many things to learn about these subjects. We must take into account some classes and years do not receive any education on the subject of intellectual disabilities. Still, it is surprising the amount of questions they had.

A group of students and athletes sign and decorate an inclusion banner outside.

In this project we both realized the amount of creativity and imagination we have. We wondered how we could do the things we were doing better by inviting more young people like us or informing families about intellectual disabilities.

Maria’s classmates knew how to treat the students because they are used to that environment.

At the end of the day, we think that to be a voice for inclusion as young people is good.

When we carried out the project, María felt so confident and expressed herself with an indescribable freedom. She had an extraordinary development, and as each of the traditional games was carried out, we felt very confident with the schools we were working on.

I can express that it was a satisfactory experience because we learned so much and fulfilled the goal we had set for ourselves. I can even say that we exceeded the metrics we had set for ourselves.

The 2018 Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant initiative is supported through partnerships with Hasbro, Inc., The Samuel Family Foundation, the Office of Special Education Programs at the United States Department of Education, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and the Lions Clubs International Foundation. Learn more about these inspiring projects at