'Engage the youth and you engage the world'—athlete leaders are paving a way forward for Special Olympics

(L-R): Ben Haack, Lucy Meyer and Ian Harper: Athlete leaders will make up a key part of the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Forum. They function as spokespersons between the Special Olympic athletes and the outside world.

by Bavo Delbaere, AIPS Young Reporter, Belgium

During the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku an important role will be played by the athlete leaders of the movement. Athlete leaders are trained by Special Olympics to convey the wishes and needs of athletes to the outside world, to shatter misconceptions and to actively think about new strategies to help the movement grow. On the eve of the Opening Ceremony of the Forum, four of these bridge-builders gathered at the Boulevard Hotel on the shore of the Caspian Sea to talk about their leadership goals.

Lucy Meyer (19) is part of Special Olympics California. She is a five-time Special Olympics gold medalist in swimming who travels the world trying to teach others the importance of an inclusive society.

Lucy: “When I was younger playing with others wasn’t possible because of my disability. I never even knew about competing in sports. That all changed after I got involved in Special Olympics. I learned what it was to have fun, I got the opportunity to make friends, play on a team and learn about winning and losing.

“As an adult leader, I talk a lot about that in schools around Los Angeles. The day before I go on stage I practice my speech at home. I prepare it together with my mom and try to say everything in my own words. It makes people truly understand my message. I have never been nervous at all. I absolutely love doing it. I especially love talking to kids. I love it when they ask questions. Helping them is my favorite part.

“I try to speak about including everybody with or without disability: in schools, sports and different areas of the world. When I’m in an inclusive environment people try to help and to understand you. You no longer rely on yourself but you feel surrounded by friends.”

Ben Haack (36) has been involved in Special Olympics for many years, competing in cricket and soccer in Australia. He is a member of Special Olympics International’s Board of Directors and tries to be a spokesperson for his fellow athletes.

Ben Haack sitting, while the picture was being taken he said: “ For young people we are an invisible problem. If you look at the way society is structured it makes sense because we are always separated. We don’t live in a different community but we’re not really connected either.
Ben Haack: "For young people we are an invisible problem. If you look at the way society is structured it makes sense because we are always separated. We don’t live in a different community but we’re not really connected either."

Ben: “A big challenge for me is how to get directors and business people to understand the human side of the organization. We’re moving to a point in this world where it’s a case of values and understanding. We’re just starting to scrape the surface on what it means to be a true global movement. If you were to go a lot of parts of the world they still wouldn’t know a lot about Special Olympics and that is something I believe we must change urgently.

Finding a gateway “That is the main challenge for me. We’ve got to find a way to break into those countries and move into those more uncomfortable areas. Because otherwise we’re not going to create what we really want: a unified revolution.

“The key is how to engage with youth so they become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. All these youngsters are going into other professions that could very well impact people with disabilities in their day to day lives. Engaging with them and getting them to really understand both the challenges and the solutions and valuing them at a young age is very important.

Ian Harper (31) has been doing athletics with Special Olympic Great-Britain for 18 years. He will have a highly visible role at the Forum as he will co-host on the stage.

Ian: “It’s quite a privilege to co-host at the event. I hope to be inspiring the next generation of athletes that are coming up through the ranks. They might be the main athlete leaders of the future, after all.

Empowerment “I try to contribute where I can. Outside of Special Olympics I worked on a project in Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom that employs people with an intellectual disability. We went from 0,5% to 6% employment rate in two years. It worked very well because we had that drive and an ambition to raise the bar.

“I’m hoping to lay the foundation for all athletes in Great Britain and other areas in the world. To make sure that we all work together to achieve a full integrated society. Without any prejudice, barriers or any discrimination or exclusion.

Gilmour Borg (17) lives in Malta and competes in athletics with Special Olympics. He also works for Maltese television where he has promoted the need for sports access for all citizens. He says his goal is to give all athletes a voice.

Gilmour: “I’m very grateful to be here at the Forum. Special Olympics had a very big impact on my life. I experienced bullying and I lacked a lot of self-confidence when I was younger. Now I can safely say I have found the light. The people from Special Olympics were patient with me and they’ve helped me by giving me the tools and knowledge to help me become a proper leader.

Gilmour Borg seated and while this photo was being taken he said: “For me inclusion is about opening up. It’s going out in the word to show what Special Olympics is. Eventually people will learn and more people will join.
Gilmour Borg: "For me inclusion is about opening up. It’s going out in the word to show what Special Olympics is. Eventually people will learn and more people will join."

Athlete leaders “I am an athlete as well and when we train I try to talk to the other athletes. I see the movement as one big army. Everyone is included and everyone is equal. No one is higher and no one is lower and none of our people get left behind!“A big part of what I want is to create acceptance for absolutely everyone. We can only accomplish that by moving forward and to keep going. The only thing I would like are more opportunities. The more clubs I can visit where I can talk about Special Olympics the better.”During the four-day Forum more youth leaders, Special Olympics athletes and game-changers will set the stage to join Ben, Gilmour, Lucy and Ian in their fight to create a more inclusive society.