A Summer for Inclusive Youth Leadership

Two young women use a microphone to interview another woman.

With school going back in session all over the country, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is so proud to look back at all that was accomplished this past summer. These summer months were a busy time for Special Olympics, with two major events in two months: the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Washington and the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Chicago, Illinois! While Special Olympics events are always a hotbed for volunteering, activation, and engagement, this summer’s events were especially filled with inclusive youth leadership of young people across the United States.

This year’s 2018 USA Games played host to the first ever Special Olympics Youth Leadership Experience, a summit-like opportunity for seventy-four students from around the United States to participate in Games volunteering and learn about inclusion in a thrilling environment. Thirty-seven states were represented by Unified pairs—meaning one student with an intellectual disability and one student without—and a mentor to support the young leaders. For the first time ever, these youth pairs were completely embedded in their state’s delegation, walking in with their state at the Opening Ceremony and truly being part of the team.

Throughout the week, the Youth Leadership Experience (YLE) pairs participated in a wide range of activities and training opportunities. As an insight into Games management and potential career paths, each pair spent a day shadowing hosts ranging from Special Olympics staff, sports coaches, media and fundraising partners, and more! The youth were paired up with their host based on their interests and experience, giving them networking opportunities and a new perspective to what makes each Special Olympics supporter’s story so unique.

Stepping away from management roles and into that of an athlete, YLE pairs spent another day observing Unified Sports®—specifically, Interscholastic Unified basketball and Intercollegiate Unified flag football! As many of the pairs are going to be graduating from high school soon, this rotation was a great opportunity for students to see how they can maintain Special Olympics involvement during their transition from high school to college. They also spent ample time in this rotation considering the importance of meaningful involvement and player dominance in Unified Sports.

Another day of their exciting week consisted of a storytelling rotation—an opportunity to connect with spectators, athletes, family members, and volunteers to collect and share stories of inclusion. The Unified pairs were able to act as on-site reporters, utilizing social media to share out updates and highlights at the 2018 USA Games. The freedom to explore the Games also gave them the unique experience of completing an “audio/visual scavenger hunt”, interviewing attendees of the Games.

The last rotation of the Youth Leadership Experience was one that got rave reviews from the participants: volunteering at the Special Olympics Young Athletes Festival! In this rotation, the YLE pairs were completely immersed into a volunteer role. At the Festival, pairs interacted with children and families, leading them through the various Young Athletes stations. Over the course of a three-day period, almost 300 children with and without intellectual disabilities participated in activity stations, obstacle courses, and the Strider Bike adventure zone.

A mere five days of activities produced hundreds of unique, inclusive experiences for the YLE pairs. In just one week, the pairs stepped out of their comfort zones and into the role of leaders in their community, pledging to bring all they learned back to their schools. Empowering young leaders with events like the 2018 USA Games Youth Leadership Experience builds character, teaches meaningful inclusion, and solidifies the impact of this young #UnifiedGeneration.

Read more about the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Youth Leadership Experience here.

Though the summer is over and the Youth Leadership Experience has passed, this school year’s resurgence for inclusive youth leadership is just beginning! In just a few weeks, five Unified pairs from Special Olympics North America will be representing their region at the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan. The five pairs—from Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Wyoming—will join more than 300 youth and adult leaders from approximately 30 countries to usher in the next era of Special Olympics programming and learn about new methods for inclusion.

To follow the stories of the North American pairs attending the Forum, make sure to follow Special Olympics North America on social media.

Please join Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in celebrating inclusive youth leadership and inspirational students all year long!

Resources:
Youth Leadership Experience Digital Report
Special Olympics North America on Twitter
Special Olympics North America on Instagram
GeneratioUunified.org
Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®

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