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Renee Manfredi Reflects on Inclusion

As the Global Week of Inclusion began I thought, "what does inclusion really mean, what does it really look like?"

Inclusion is a noun. in·clu·sion | \ in-ˈklü-zhən

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it means:

  1. “the act of including”
  2. “the state of being included”
  3. “a relation between two classes, when members of one class are also members of another”

It is a sense of belonging, of not being left out. It is a sense of togetherness. When someone with a disability is considered part of a team, inclusion is in the works! Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, dreamed of inclusion when she hosted athletes with intellectual disabilities (ID) at her home for Camp Shriver in 1962, which led to her founding Special Olympics on July 20, 1968. It is the legacy she left behind we honored globally during the Global Week of Inclusion July 15–20.

During the Global Week of Inclusion, here in Hawaii, we had a large social media push talking about the wonderful work that Mrs. Shriver did for all of people with ID. Without her passionate work, I know I would not be the person I am today. Maybe you can say the same? Today in my world, I do not see a person who is defined by ID. I see self-confident individuals, leaders in my own organization, self-advocates, committee members, Board of Director members, high level athletes, and the list just goes on and on.

Over 50 years later, supporters of Special Olympics celebrate Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day on July 20th in many different ways. Special Olympics Hawaii (SOHI) was very excited to honor this day by holding a Young Athletes event. Mrs. Shriver’s vision of the future was shared with these youngest athletes ages 2 through 7 and maybe, more importantly, with their moms and dads. SOHI truly wants parents of young people with “intellectual differences”, as Tim Shriver said, to know that their child has a whole world full of opportunities. One of the best opportunities is sports and inclusion through Special Olympics.

On a personal note, I started to celebrate the Global Week of Inclusion a little earlier than SOHI, on July 12. I had the opportunity to speak at the Education Leaders Institute in front of Department of Education administrators and other DOE employees. I want those leaders to know what my life was like in school, which was NOT what life SHOULD be like for youth today. They need to know they can be the agents of change by requiring their schools to be inclusive. I shared how Mrs. Shriver and her vision changed the lives of millions of individuals like myself with intellectual disabilities, and about the impact that school based inclusive programs and sports are making on our youth.

Togetherness is a theme for the entire month of July, but I wonder, what does togetherness really mean, what does it REALLY look like?

Togetherness is a noun. to·geth·er·ness | \ tuh-geth-er-nis

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary it means:

  1. “a state or feeling of closeness and happiness among people who are together as friends, family members, etc.”
  2. “family togetherness”
  3. “trying to encourage a sense of togetherness among the people in the community”
Renee and Nyasha Derera show off their matching rings.
Renee with fellow SSIGM Nyasha Derera from Zimbabwe.

I had the honor of traveling to Massachusetts July 18–20 to celebrate first-hand with the Kennedy & Shriver families, together.

I met up with athletes & persons from all over the world as well as my fellow Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger Nyasha Derera, who traveled from Zimbabwe to Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. We coordinated, rehearsed, practiced and learned our roles in A Revolution in Action, an event that took place at the Kennedy Shriver residence to celebrate the Global Week of Inclusion & to honor the legacy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

This weekend, I experienced INCLUSION & TOGETHERNESS first-hand.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

On the 19th, I attended the 50th Year Anniversary Celebration. My role was to speak on freedom & powerful women. Strong women, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, have impacted our lives to this very day. She liberated us from being locked away in mental institutions and has worked to give us the freedom to be ourselves. Another strong woman is my mother. When she was told I would never be able to read or write or attend school, she did not give up on what my future held. When I graduated from high school and there were no services for me, she said I would not walk my future alone. We would do this TOGETHER. Because of these two strong women, I am who I am today.

The culmination of this week, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, a Global Day of Inclusion, was celebrated on July 20th in a way I believe honored Eunice because she loved sports, games and inclusion. There was a Unified Play Day at the Kennedy Compound. We were broken up into teams of color. I was on the Yellow Team. We played soccer, volleyball, bocce and flag football. It was a lot of fun. There was also a scavenger hunt going on at the same time. We had to be creative in coming up with a cheer for our team. But the celebration did not stop there. Later that evening there was a clambake where I had the opportunity to sing Colors of the Wind with Special Olympics board member Vanessa Williams! That was so amazing and special to me. I will always treasure that memory. Everyone can be included!

Renee with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, Amy Bockerstette from Special Olympics Arizona and fellow SSIGM Nyasha Derera from Special Olympics Zimbabwe.
Renee with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, Amy Bockerstette from Special Olympics Arizona and fellow SSIGM Nyasha Derera from Special Olympics Zimbabwe.

On the morning of the 21st was the farewell breakfast. It was very nice, but bittersweet, no one likes having to say goodbye, not even me. But, I know that the inclusion and togetherness will never end. Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver and Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis continue to lead Special Olympics with a determination that would make Eunice proud. I cannot think of a better way to honor Mrs. Shriver and to thank her for starting this wonderful organization than the way her family continues her mission.

I am so honored to have been able participate in this wonderful event in memory of our founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Eunice was a strong independent woman who took a stand. She ignored people who told her NO and said we could have jobs and be neighbors. She broke down barriers. She took the time to know us and was not afraid of us. She was not only our champion; she was our friend. Eunice lived our athlete oath: she WAS brave in the attempt to bring us out of the shadows and into the light of our world. Eunice Kennedy Shriver has changed my life and the lives of 6 million others and counting, in so many ways. I cannot even begin to thank her enough.

I would like to leave you with a quote from the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, “If you don’t have an idea that materializes and changes a person’s life, then what have you got? You have talk, research, telephone calls, meetings, but you don’t have a change in the community.”

Thank you Eunice Kennedy Shriver for taking someone like me from the shadows of life and into the light of life.

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