Partner Highlight: Missouri Association of Student Councils

fort osage bowling socialThe Missouri Association of Student Councils (MASC) chose Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) as their charity of choice 24 years ago. Since that time, they have been raising funds and awareness in junior high and high schools across the state. Member schools are encouraged to assist with Special Olympics events in their areas. Many of the schools host events, volunteer at events, do fundraisers, participate in the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign and take the Plunge. The students volunteer an average of 12,000 a year, equating to 288,000 hours they have given to Special Olympics Missouri in 24 years. The students learn the importance of serving others and their commitment to SOMO extends beyond high school graduation.

MASC volunteer at YAP“There is not an event I attend that I don’t find a volunteer who learned about Special Olympics because of their involvement with MASC,” SOMO Sr. Director of Programs Trish Lutz says. “Recently, at the Jefferson City Regional Basketball tournament, I was talking with a group of girls who came from Mizzou to volunteer. I asked how they got involved and one girl said ‘I was in student council in high school and we were members of MASC and SOMO was our charity of choice. I would always volunteer at the Area Spring Games in St. Louis and I wanted to continue volunteering in college so I invited a couple of my college friends to join me today.’”

Dexter STUCO plungeIn 2009, MASC stepped up the commitment and really promoted the Polar Plunge. That year, 700 youth raised more than $99,000. The momentum they have generated since 2009 has resulted in a grand total of $624,888.33 being raised just through the Polar Plunge. This amount does not include all the other fundraising the individual schools do throughout the year.

MASC promotes and teaches acceptance, respect and inclusion for all. Our athletes are included in the MASC Summer Leadership Workshop where they work side by side with their peers developing their leadership skills, confidence and building a bridge of acceptance and change for all. The interaction between the youth leaders and the athletes is amazing! Athletes grow from timid, unsure individuals to outgoing, confident leaders who are ready to get involved with their student council as representatives, run for office and plan school activities. Youth leaders learn to embrace individual differences and the value of inclusion.

Savannah Middle SchoolMASC received the 2013 Special Olympics Missouri Award of Excellence. This is the highest honor the board bestows on an individual or organization for their years of service and impact on the SOMO program.

Special Olympics Missouri is lucky to have found a true friend in the Missouri Association of Student Councils. They are educating the leaders of our future to be agents of change, fostering respect and dignity through service to others.

If you know of a school that would be interested in being a member of MASC, visit their website at

Choosing Person-First Language

By: Jacob Conklin

When people ask, and inevitably they do, about how I became involved with Special Olympics and special education I give a canned response based on the audience. It never fails though that someone always asks if it is because of a family member; maybe I have a brother, niece, cousin or even a parent with special needs. When I explain that I do not have a family member with a disability I usually receive the same response from everyone, nodding and saying “oh, okay.” This is followed by them tilting their head slightly with a look of bewilderment. I have always been troubled by this response because I never know how to take it, but at this point I accept that it will happen and move on.

The truth is I am involved in special education because of Special Olympics but there is not one defining factor that set me on this course but there are many AH-HA moments that have propelled me deeper down the rabbit hole. Most people would comment that I am naturally compassionate or maintain superhero levels of patience (I do not by the way, as my students can willing attest), I would say that my natural curiosity and desire to know people was the trait that led me here. To be completely honest, I was the kid, teenager, young adult who stared, gaze fully locked on the person in the wheelchair. This was followed up by a prompt tap on the head and a “stop, you are being rude” by a parent, sibling, teacher or friend. This cycle of natural curiosity matched with an attention getting rap to the head combined with “it’s rude to stare” started a long and twisted association of recognizing people with disabilities as being rude a gesture on my part and thus wrong, punishable by a quick finger strike to my head. As I look back on this mutated association I realize this is probably a typical story for most people. We were young, innocent and curious about the world around us. Incessantly asking our parents questions, “why is the sky blue”, “where do babies come from”, “why does that person use a wheelchair”, “why does he talk funny”, and “why does she look different?” No question was asked with malice or malicious intent, just childlike curiosity.

Jumping ahead two decades I was still the onlooker with hidden curiosity. However, I was too afraid to talk to that person in a wheelchair or anyone who had a visible disability, ashamed to want to know his or her story. It was far better to ignore and be ignorant than be rude. As I found myself toying with the idea of making a second career in the field of special education I discovered a concept that would change the way I perceived my world and how I thought about people with disabilities.

People-first language is a form of linguistic prescriptivism in English, aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities, as such forming an aspect of disability etiquette.

The basic idea is to impose a sentence structure that names the person-first and the condition second, for example “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”, in order to emphasize that “they are people first”. Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., “asthmatic person” with “a person who has asthma.” – Wikipedia

A veil had been lifted and I suddenly found solace in the idea that I should see the person before any other condition. It took time to change my language but by forcing myself to change the words I used. I changed my way of thinking about and how I saw people with disabilities. The language eventually became automatic and I began to embrace the curiosity that had been long repressed. No longer was I bound to the chain of thoughts “a disability… I am rude… must ignore”. Person-first language was eye opening and yet so simple, if I consciously change my words it would (and did) lead to me thinking and seeing people before the condition.

“Nick is learning disabled” would be a common phrase in my world of education. It bears no malicious intent but it is a statement with a sense of absoluteness. Saying “Nick IS learning disabled” is saying he is the condition, he is the disability; however using person-first language we would state that “Nick has a learning disability.” The difference is very subtle and to many it may even seem trivial. It was this small change that clicked with me. No longer was I focused on the condition, I could see the person and recognize the condition as an attribute of their whole.

I am not here to tell you how to speak or to assume the role of word police but to simply weave a narrative of how person-first language has been a very useful tool in my life. Person-first language is not the same as being politically correct, person-first language is much (can be) more substantial than just being PC. Full disclosure, I am aware of all the criticisms against using person-first language and how some advocacy groups or disability cultures abhor its use. Again, I am just trying to create a narrative about how utilizing person-first language has been a useful in my experiences.

If you are still with me I am sure you have asked or are asking yourself what does this have to do with Special Olympics. I am writing this menagerie of irreverence in hopes someone somewhere decides to supplement or enhance their Spread the Word program by using person-first language. One of the difficulties I have seen over the last 7 or 8 years of ban the r-word programming is that there is a disconnect between the impassioned few and the ill-informed mass. I have seen teenager and adult alike employ a wide spectrum of strategies to combat the use of the r-word. The disconnect is in us telling someone else they have done and are doing something wrong by using the r-word. People who generally mean well and use the r-word use it much the same reason a habitual swearer uses curse words. They lack a robust enough accessible vocabulary and the r-word much like cuss words easily fill the all those roles of speech, it can serve as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. However, there is also the case of the educated person who still chooses to use it. To this I say we have to change the way people chose their words. I doubt the masses wake up and consciously decide “today I will try and use as many offensive words as possible.” So why are people using the r-word? I think back to times when I have said something I should not have and try to figure why I said it. How did I decide to use the words or words that I let slip from my mouth? I recognize I had control of my actions but I wasn’t consciously selecting each and every individual word that came forth. There was a level of automaticity to it; I knew what was coming or what I wanted to get across but sometimes certain words just come up as we look for other ones.

How do we change how we think or our subconscious word selection? The answer for me was people first language. If you find this as intriguing as I initially did, and continue to, I implore you to give it a try. It may take a few days, weeks, or even months but it has the potential to impact how you see people around you. My hopes are that in time you will share it with the people around you as I have with my students, colleagues, and friends who can attest to its affects.

For further information on

Person-first language:

Person-first language in writing and journalism

Linguistic Relativity

 Jacob Conklin is a special education teacher at Pleasant Hope R-VI School District in Pleasant Hope, Missouri. Conklin has interned with Special Olympics International and is a Student Council advisor.


Spread the Word to End the Word on March 28

Jared portrait

Jared Niemeyer is a SOMO athlete from Kirksville

March is Spread the word to End the R-word campaign month. Our youth are leading the R-word movement to address this issue of social injustice.  They are standing strong and informing others of the significance in not using the R-word.  This movement is encouraging people to make a decision to use respectful language and make a pledge to not use the R-word.  Their goal is to generate respect for all individuals; promoting inclusive communities, inclusive employment and a more inclusive world.  Shouldn’t every encounter be addressed?

We may not find it necessary to take the stand that John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics athlete and Global Messenger, took in writing an open letter to Ann Coulter due to her use of the word retard following the Presidential debates in November 2012.  However, we are very grateful for John’s courage and his thought-provoking letter.  John’s letter included this comment, “Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.”

John has said in the past that hearing the word retard “makes him, and others like him, feel wholly excluded.  I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.  Nothing scares me as much as feeling all alone in a world that moves so much faster than I do.”

With 385,153 pledges to date, our message is growing strong and our voice steady.  Join us by visiting to make this pledge:

I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

If you’ve made the pledge, step up to the challenge and resolve to add your voice to this movement in order to make a difference!

It only takes one person!  Eunice Kennedy Shriver not only accomplished her dream of promoting dignity through athletic opportunities, but has spread her dream across our world.  You can do the same thing in your family, school, clubs, organizations and community.  You can make all the difference with the people around you.  You can make change but you can also BE the change!

Students in Kirksville pledge to end the use of the r-word

Students in Kirksville pledge to end the use of the r-word

You can do so many things to promote change by being motivated, enthusiastic, encouraging, and energetic.  Be the change in ending the R-word means you explain to others how hurtful the derogatory use of the word retard is to those with intellectual disabilities.  It makes those of us who have an intellectual disability feel inferior, less important, able to do or accomplish less or even unlovable.  It’s important to stop putting others down by saying “retard” or “retarded” as if it’s disgusting or the worst thing possible.  Take a stand – share with your family, friends or others who use those words that it hurts us.  Take a stand to be the change for positive attitudes and changed hearts in your community.  Take a stand to be a strong, positive voice!

Most people don’t seem to understand how saying words can be so hurtful.  When you explain to one person, a friend, a group of people, a club, a class, a school – it spreads!!  Just informing others causes a ripple effect.  You can share with your friends and they can help promote change with you!  If you start a campaign in your school you just have to have a plan that your group of friends and an interested adult can share with your principal or superintendent.  If they are concerned you have to listen to what their concerns may be and adjust your plans if possible to make it doable in your school!  Listen to them and they’ll listen to you.

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, Jared and Brenda Niemeyer and Senator Roy Blunt

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, Jared and Brenda Niemeyer and Senator Roy Blunt

Use ideas on the R-word website or in the Project UNIFY manual to make sure your campaign has everything it needs to be the best!  These ideas can help you come up with plans for your group to propose and accomplish.  Stopping the R-word is about respect, dignity, unity, fairness, understanding, inclusion, truth, honor and acceptance.  We can all live together by working together; but we have to be a positive person in our community.  Everybody deserves to be treated with respect.  You might not always understand me or know what I’m talking about, but what I have to share is important.  I want to help make good things happen for the people around me.  I want to help others get through school, get along with others, get a meaningful job, live as independently as they can and give to their community!  One can make HUGE changes for many others.  Be the one working for positive change.  BE THE CHANGE in your community!

Jared Niemeyer is a SOMO athlete who lives in Kirksville. He serves on the national Youth Activation Committee, a group of young people from across the country who work together to promote school communities where all young people are agents of change.

Bullying and Hate Should Not Be Tolerated: Why Ann Coulter’s Use of the R-word is Wrong

Andrew Mundwiller is an attorney with The Cagle Law Firm in St. Louis. He represents people with severe injuries and disabilities, focusing on protecting his clients’ legal rights and financial well-being. Andrew is also a member of SOMO’s Board of Directors.

During the Presidential debate on October 22, conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter stated on her Twitter account, “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”  Coulter’s comment referred to President Obama as a “retard.”

The next day, John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics Athlete from Virginia wrote an open letter to Coulter addressing her use of the r-word and invited Coulter to attend a Special Olympics event. 

Thursday, Coulter was on the radio and was asked whether she regretted her use of the r-word.  Coulter said, “No of course I don’t.” Coulter further stated, “Liberal victims are the biggest bullies of all” and when referring to people who criticized her use of the r-word Coulter stated, “screw them.”

I am a volunteer board member for Special Olympics Missouri and I have a son with autism.  I am not willing to sit back and let people bully children and other human beings with intellectual disabilities.  So I felt it necessary to write this letter to you.

I am so confused by how accepted hate and bullying has become in this country.  How is it that Coulter and those like her feel it necessary to attack innocent human beings to further their personal and political agenda?

I am disgusted that someone who claims to be educated and on the moral high ground would choose to use such offensive and hurtful language to people that she has never met. Furthermore, when given a chance to say she was sorry, she added further insult and continued her use of the r-word.

There is no place in a civilized and modern society for the r-word.  Coulter used the word interchangeably with the word “loser.”   I am not sure how that could be so.  I have been to many Special Olympics events and I have never seen a loser. 

What I’ve seen are people who are my heroes.  People who never let life’s challenges get in their way.  I’ve seen people who possess the best qualities that a human being could have, like love and caring.

Ann Coulter had a real opportunity to address the use of the r-word.  Coulter had the chance to stick up for people and denounce bullying and hate, but Coulter refused.  Nobody can change Coulter or her feelings.  It is up to our community to say, “I am not okay with hate and bullying.”  “I am not going to tolerate people being hurtful.”  We are all members of this community.  Life is too short to live in a society where we hurt each other.

Beyond Spread the Word to End the Word Week

Day in and day out, I’m around people at school, at church, at the checkout line of Wal-Mart, and I hear them use the R-word when making fun of themselves or someone around them. I hear it, and I get that cringe, the same one I know so many of you get. We get that cringe, because we feel the pain that we know someone casually using the word “retarded” in a derogatory manner can cause. We know, because of the people in our life, because of our athlete friends, and because of Special Olympics. We cringe when we hear the R-word used incorrectly, but that cringe… that’s not enough.

When we think about the R-word, many of our minds may jump to our biggest movement against the misuse of the word: Spread the Word to End the Word week. We think of our banners, T-shirts, youth rallies, and all the success we’ve seen come from them. The only problem is, in that moment in my day, I don’t always have those things with me. That’s why I had to work on my only means of reaching someone in that moment. I had to reach them with my words.

Now originally, when I would approach someone after I heard them use the word “retard” in a derogatory manner, I’d always give them the same spiel. I’d tell them: “When you use that word, you are demeaning every person with a mental disability and everyone they know. You should feel like a terrible person. Why? Why would you do that?” and I would walk away angrily.

As I did this, I started to notice a trend in the way people reacted to me. They would get upset, shut down, or even ignore me. That’s when I started to think about what made me change my feelings about the R-word; my friend, Chance. Chance is a SOMO athlete, and one of my best friends, and before I started hanging out with him, the R-word always seemed like this far off vague problem. Anytime I heard someone talk about Spread the Word at school, I felt like they were judging and belittling me for calling something “retarded”. I felt like they were making me the bad guy.

I feel that’s the problem a lot of us face when we approach someone about the R-word. Yes, I may have an extreme emotional attachment to spread the Word, but not everyone might. That’s why when you want to get through to someone, remember that they are people just like you, and remaining calm will get you so much further. Be straight forward, be understanding, and be honest; you never know how much that will get through to someone.

Whitney Durr is a student at Pleasant Hope High School and a member of SOMO’s Youth Activation Committee.

The New R-Word: Respect

There have been so many good things written and said about the r-word, but I’m going to take a crack at explaining why this issue is important to me.

You know that old sticks-and-stones line? I guess it was created to try to help kids brush off cruelty, but it is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard. Words are powerful. Words do hurt. Words let us express our emotions, our frustrations, our attitudes and even our prejudices. Don’t believe words are powerful?

Would you like to sit with me?

I love you.

I miss you.

You’re important to me.

Will you marry me?

You’re not good enough.

I hate you.

You’re fired.

You’re retarded.

Depending on your background, each of those phrases probably evoked a certain emotion, but to me, there’s no denying that the last one stings.

The r-word has become a blanket insult: a word meant to identify something as insufficient, broken, unpleasant or just plain bad. Some will argue that using it this way isn’t meant to hurt anyone, and we shouldn’t take offense since it wasn’t directed at a person. Or that, because the literal definition means “slowed down,” it is okay to use the word in this way.

Let me try to explain. When you take a medical term and apply it to things that you don’t like, you’re applying negative stereotypes to the word, which in turn, applies those stereotypes to individuals with that medical diagnosis. To explain it in another way, let’s take my name, Mandi. If you start saying “Mandi” to mean things you don’t like, I will imply that you don’t like me, and that my name is bad, therefore I am bad. Try it with your own name: My iPod doesn’t work, it’s so _____. The car in front of me isn’t going fast enough, the driver must be _____. You didn’t understand that movie? You must be _____. I hate that idea, it’s so _____. The next time you are about to use the r-word, replace it with your name and see how it makes you feel.

This is why we’ve been fighting to have the medical terminolgy changed. Yes, there’s a chance that “intellectual disability” or ID, will soon become an insult. But that’s why this movement is about more than just the r-word itself. We’re trying to change attitudes. We’re trying to show the public what individuals with intellectual disablities have to offer. We’re trying to convince people that different doesn’t mean bad.

Individuals with intellectual disabilites (and those who love them) have had to fight for decades to overcome stereotypes, be accepted and included, be hired for jobs. Just a few decades ago, parents who were told their child had Down syndrome were then advised to place the child in an institution. This population has been overlooked and underestimated for long enough. It’s time we give them the credit and respect they deserve.

Here are a few of my friends, whom I respect and admire:

Chris, who earned one gold, one silver and two bronze medals at the 2011 World Games in Greece

Shirlene, who was the Grand Marshal in Governor Nixon's Inauguration Parade

Sarah, who never forgets a birthday, and who conquered her fear of heights by going Over the Edge of the Tiger Hotel

Rob, who can lift more weight than anyone I know

David, who can always make me laugh, no matter how stressful my day has been

Tina, the proudest aunt I know, and Beth, the Columbia Women's Intersport Network Sportswoman of the Year

Each of these individuals has accomplished something great. Each of them has made a positive impact on my life. They are some of the kindest, most loving people I know. They would love to be your friend, too.

Would you ever say the r-word in front of them? If not, please don’t say it when they’re not there. Take the pledge today at

Mandi Steward is the Marketing Manager for SOMO. You can reach her at

Movie Review: Bully

I knew going into this movie that it would probably be tough to watch. I knew it would make me think of all the Special Olympics athletes we strive to make a better life for each day. I thought I knew, but I just couldn’t have known how deeply this movie would affect me. It is, by far, the most moving film I’ve ever watched. It sliced right to my core and left me wondering how we can ever tackle this problem.

Bully revolves around 5 kids and families of kids that are being or have been bullied. The two families that I say in the past tense, they’re past tense, because those two boys committed suicide. A 17-year old boy and an 11-year-old boy felt like they had so little to wake up to in the morning, so little hope and acceptance, that they would rather not be here. The film follows 3 others whose stories could have turned out very similar. Pictured above is Alex, age 12, of Sioux City, Iowa, one of the kids who is followed throughout the documentary. *Photo is a screenshot from the film.

In Bully you see these five families, but what about the millions of other kids who are being bullied everyday? What about the kids who don’t have the words to stand up to those bullies, and what about the kids who don’t have the words to tell anyone who can do anything about it? Who will stand for them? Will you stand for them?

I’m not arrogant enough to say that I have the answers, but I have compiled a list of things we can do as parents, as advocates for kids (especially those with intellectual disabilities), and as community members.


  • We need to teach our children to value every person. Even when we don’t understand someone because they are different from us in some way, we should still be kind to them and seek out similarities that might result in friendship.
  • It’s also extremely important for us to foster a relationship with our kids that help them feel like they can talk to us about their life.
  • It is also important to develop a relationship with our child’s teachers, so that we open the door for them to share with us the things our kids might be facing at school but are too afraid to share with us.


  • Instilling confidence in our friends with intellectual disabilities (ID), will help them have a voice that is heard. We need to give them the tools stand up for themselves.
  • People are often afraid of what they don’t understand. We need to educate others about intellectual disabilities and help people see past them to see the person.
  • Empower other kids to be advocates for kids with ID and give them the tools to stand up for their friends in a respectful and appropriate way. Project UNIFY strives to do this very thing. Read more about Project UNIFY and get involved by clicking here.

Community Members

  • It is not okay for us to stand idly by as our schools and our greater community is plagued with dangerous, violent, unacceptable behavior. We must stop bullying when we see it.
  •  We need to care about the state of our school system. We are responsible for who runs the school and the policies set forth. Help our schools adopt environments that allows students to feel safe in their school.

I feel very strongly that every school classroom in America could benefit from watching this film. I think you should watch it with your kids and prepare to have a lengthy discussion afterwards. One thing standing in the way of this video being shown in classrooms is that it has received an R-rating (unfairly, in my opinion). You can sign a petition to try to help give this movie the more appropriate PG-13 rating which would allow it into schools.

You can start paving the way to end bullying by participating in our campaign to End the R-word. Visit and take the pledge to quit using the word “retard” or “retarded.”

This problem is not too big. This is not hopeless. The solution starts today, and it starts with you.

“I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in hope.” -Alex, 12, Sioux City, Iowa

I watched Bully as a part of the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. You can see Bully in select theatres starting March 30. Please see this film and share it with others.

Ashley Dawson is the Project UNIFY Assistant for SOMO. She has been on staff for four years. You can reach her at

Making a Difference One School at a Time

Rachel Antal is a freshman at the University of Central Missouri. She is a SOMO volunteer and president of our Youth Activation Committee.

Special Olympics is the only place I know where you can meet someone and then the next day be joking around and feel just like a family. When I was introduced to the rest of the Youth Activation Committee (YAC), that is exactly what it felt like. We’re a small group of teenagers who all share the same passion of unifying their schools between those with intellectual disabilities and those without and just making our communities a little bit better.

I was raised around Special Olympics my whole life, attending events as soon as I was born. Everyone in my small school knew how I felt about it and they didn’t question it. In high school, I was involved in clubs like Student Council and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. I didn’t realize how sheltered some people were when it came to those different from them. There were several Special Olympics athletes in my high school and some people weren’t sure how to react. To me it was no big deal when Josh wanted to give a hug or when the others would come up to me in the hallway, but to others it was strange. Since I was the president of FCCLA my senior year, I made it my goal to start the Spread the Word to End the Word program. I made signs and announcements over the intercom but some people didn’t accept it. My friends and many people in the school stopped using the word and by the end of the year everyone was talking to Josh, Tyler and the other athletes making them feel more comfortable in the school. It was hard to raise awareness about the “r-word” but every now and then someone will write me on Facebook and tell me about how they find themselves telling others to stop using it. This makes me feel good because if I got one person to stop using it, I have made a difference. I got members of the student council to take the Polar Plunge with me. Even though there were only 8 others on my team besides myself, we still raised over $800 all together.

Now I am in my freshman year of college at the University of Central Missouri. I have been given the challenge of spreading the word all over again because this time it’s worse. Not only do students use it but also teachers. I am also the YAC president this year, which has given me so much positivity to approach people and open up their eyes to those with intellectual disabilities. My friends here have already started removing the r-word from their vocabulary but it’s the teachers and the other students that will be tricky. Recently I attended the South Central Conference for the Youth Activation Summit, which gave me a whole new outlook on why I want to unify my college so much. Jenny Newbury from Get Into It spoke to us and she gave an example by handing us each a card from the deck. She then said a random card and that person had to face away, then the next had to put their head down and so on. At the end of it she said we wouldn’t do this to people for no reason so why do we judge those different then us for no reason. During that weekend I got to grow with my YAC family and I never wanted to leave them. It makes me sad that everyone can’t experience the love that I do with Special Olympics.

I am so thankful for being a YAC member and working with the rest of my committee to change our schools. Special Olympics has given me a place to feel included and a family that I would never trade. The athletes inspire to keep a positive attitude everyday and to continue to unify.

Youth Today are the Leaders Tomorrow

Trish Lutz is the Area Services Director for SOMO. You can reach her at

How many times have you heard the statement, “Youth today are the leaders tomorrow”?  How many times have you really thought about the impact that young people have on our world?  Do you think back to when you were young (or younger) and what you did to make a difference, be the change or step up and lead?  Here are a few examples of the young people I have been blessed to work with in my 17 years on staff who are stepping up as leaders to be the change and make a difference.

Brandon is a high school student in a small community in Southwest Missouri.  One day as he was walking through the hall he noticed a girl he had gone to school with since kindergarten, we’ll call her Lucy.  Lucy has an intellectual disability.  Brandon noticed that everyone always said hi to Lucy in the hallways and people were never mean to her, but what bothered him was no one really TALKED to Lucy.  No one invited her to sit with them at lunch or go to the football game on Friday night.  He began to wonder how he could be the change and make a difference in Lucy’s life.  He did research and found out that Special Olympics offers Partners Clubs ®.  Partners Clubs® bring together high school students with Special Olympics athletes in a setting to provide sports skills training and competition on a regular basis. Partners Clubs® members may spend additional time together enjoying other social and recreational activities in the school and community.  Brandon made a proposal to his school and started his own Partners Club.  His goal is to make sure Lucy and other individuals with intellectual disabilities are included in activities at his school, including sitting together at lunch or going to the football game on Friday nights.

When I first met Elizabeth, she was about four years old and would tag along with her mom to Special Olympics events and meetings.  Her mom is a Special Olympics coach and always involved Elizabeth with her team. When Elizabeth turned eight, she became a Unified Partner in bowling and basketball.  As she got into her teenage years, Elizabeth started to get busy with interscholastic sports (she is an amazing softball player) and had to cut back on her Unified Sports.  She now helps coach the teams and plans to become a head coach as soon as she turns 18.  In the meantime, Elizabeth serves on the SOMO Youth Activation Committee.  She is one of the first official members.  Through her leadership on SOMO YAC she, along with her friend and Special Olympics athlete, Jared, started the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign at their high school when she was just a freshman.  Elizabeth continues to be the change by taking a stand against the r-word.    She is making a difference in her school and community as a leader to promote unity and respect for all.

Julie began her Special Olympics career in high school serving on the planning committee for an event they held at her school in a suburb of St. Louis.  Julie spent her summers babysitting for a family with two children with autism.  She fell in love with working with individuals with intellectual disabilities and decided to major in Special Education in college.  When applying to colleges, one of her prerequisites was that she could still remain involved with Special Olympics.  Upon her acceptance to Truman State University she immediately contacted the local organization on campus that planned and organized the Northeast Area Spring Games.  By the time she was a junior, she was the chair of the planning committee and remained the chair for two years.  She also helped coach the local program.  It was during this time that she received the statewide Outstanding Volunteer award, one of the youngest recipients ever!

Julie is now a Special Education teacher in the Kansas City Metro area.  She coaches Special Olympics in her school district and attended the 2010 National Games as a track coach.  Julie’s passion for her students and athletes is immeasurable.  Many of her former athletes in Kirksville are her friends and they come and visit her in Kansas City often.  In fact, Max was even an usher at her wedding! 

Julie and her husband are expecting their first child in January.  I am betting that little Austin will be volunteering for Special Olympics shortly after his arrival!  I’m pretty positive youth leadership is hereditary!

SOMO Youth Activation Committee (YAC)
There are about 30 young people ages 11 to 21 who serve on the SOMO YAC.  They are athletes and partners that work together to lead their schools and communities to be the change and make a difference.  They are promoting an inclusive school environment where everyone is accepted and respected.  They are true examples of acceptance, respect and friendship.  The friendships they have developed across the state will last a lifetime.  They ARE leaders, they are SOMO leaders. 

Patricia began her involvement with Special Olympics when she was 14 years old (that was 28 years ago – I’ll let you do the math!).  She helped coach Special Olympics athletes in aquatics.  When she was in high school, it was different.  Individuals with intellectual disabilities were in a classroom down the hall.  You never saw them at lunch and they certainly weren’t nominated for homecoming queen or king.  It wasn’t “cool” to volunteer for Special Olympics.  Now, you aren’t cool if you don’t volunteer!  Patricia didn’t really have the opportunities youth do today to get as involved, but when she graduated from college she got a job with the greatest organization ever – SPECIAL OLYMPICS MISSOURI (if you haven’t guessed – Patricia is me – Trish Lutz, Area Services Director).

So as adults, are you ready for our youth today to be the leaders of tomorrow?  If so, then guide them in the right direction and give them a voice to be the change.