A plant nursery may be an unusual location to celebrate the start of a relationship, but it can serve as a fitting metaphor. Much like tending to young plants in a nursery, new partners care for one another and encourage each other’s growth. The symbolism isn’t lost on Special Olympics Pakistan. The Program routinely participates in local tree plantation drives—initiatives of planting trees to combat deforestation and add green spaces to communities—seizing these opportunities to bring together youth with and without intellectual disabilities, often for the first time. During these plantation drives, students of all abilities work together in a unique and inclusive environment—and in the process learn about each other.
Recently, a tree plantation drive was held in recognition of a new partnership between Special Olympics Pakistan and the Rotaract Club in the city of Rawalpindi. The Rotaract Club is a youth organization connected to Rotary International that focuses on community service and leadership. Members of the Rawalpindi Rotaract Club, alongside athletes and partners from Unified Champion Schools, planted fruit trees and participated in Unified activities. With around 150 participants from the two organizations, not only was the attendance impressive, but the enthusiasm from attendees gave the Program hope that similar community partnerships, supported by the Special Olympics project funded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), might be an effective tool for expanding the reach of UCS programming throughout the country.
Minahil, a 16-year-old Special Olympics Pakistan Youth Leader, participated in this plantation drive with Special Olympics athletes and Rotaract Club members. She says at first the idea of meeting people was intimidating, but after interacting and socializing with the athletes and Rotaract club members, she found the event to be enjoyable. She comments:
“Overall, it was a unique experience for me and many of my new friends. [The athletes and I] felt a sense of belonging as we helped and guided each other throughout the activity. We also shared our interests and hobbies and vowed to participate in more activities together.”
In addition to providing youth such as Minahil with a unique learning experience, the partnership with the Rotaract Club supplies Special Olympics Pakistan with additional advocates who promote inclusion in communities. The values of Rawalpindi’s Rotaract Club align with many qualities Special Olympics looks for in environments of acceptance—empathy, service, and societal impact. By exposing the club’s members to the impact of UCS programming, more and more young people are becoming equipped with the tools to actively encourage an inclusive society for people of all abilities.
Syeda Rubab Haider, the advisor for the Rotaract Club, hopes for a sustainable partnership with Special Olympics Pakistan. She states that the joint community engagement activity changed her mindset about People of Determination, and it had a similar effect on the attitudes of club members whose personal interactions with People of Determination had been limited prior to the plantation drive. She shares:
“For the first time in my life, I realized that intellectual disabilities do not make anyone a liability to the family and society. In fact, if proper attention is given to [People of Determination], they can be as effective in society as anyone else.”
Members of Special Olympics Pakistan and the Rotaract Club in Rawalpindi look forward to continuing their collaboration in promoting an inclusive society at the grassroots level. By reaching out to community members beyond the schoolhouse doors, Special Olympics Pakistan is solidifying a sustainable approach to inviting other non-school groups to experience the benefits and impact of inclusion.