Do what you love, love what you do

Ashley Dawson is the Project UNIFY Manager for SOMO. You can reach her at dawson@somo.org. 

I’m one of those truly lucky people who get to wake up in the morning and love what they do. Of course there are frustrations, because what fun would life be if everything went smoothly and you never encountered an obstacle. But I get to wake up and go to one of two jobs – mom to my almost 3-year-old, or Project UNIFY Manager for Special Olympics Missouri. When I first decided to stay home with my daughter almost 2 years ago, I never imagined there would also still be a place at SOMO that fit me so well. Working with my boss to make a plan for how I could still make an impact at SOMO and help support my family and be home with my daughter more, we created a position to manage the very large job of overseeing youth initiatives and reporting data in accordance with our substantial grant.

My expectations were pretty low (don’t tell my boss!), knowing that I was leaving a position I loved, that suited my strengths very well, and taking a position that had seemingly less to challenge me professionally. After a year of getting my feet under me, I feel like I’ve only grown more and more to see the potential of youth in Missouri and am daily inspired by what schools and teens are doing in their local community. I’ve watched high schoolers step up and lead a school-wide Respect Rally. I’ve heard teachers sit down side-by-side and discuss roadblocks – not to complain, but to find a SOLUTION. I’m fortunate to get to peek inside the challenges teachers face, and lucky to be able to sit and think about how I can work with them to overcome obstacles that stand in the way (often inadvertently) of creating a welcome, inclusive, positive environment in schools across the state.

At our last YAC meeting, a room full of students was led by a freshly elected president (a freshman in college). They hammered out sub-committees, and identified adult advisors (teachers and staff). They worked independently to accomplish goals they set for themselves. At the same time, our ELN sat in a room and heard from several people about presentations and conferences they had attended and were inspired by. They brought back tons of information to share with other teachers in our group.

For a girl who always dreamed of being a teacher, being surrounded by so many inspiring teachers and students each time I set foot in my office or attend a meeting, is a real blessing. Not only do I get to see young students well exceeding people’s expectations (mine included!), but I get to work with them and challenge myself and them to dream even bigger.

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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 www.r-word.org 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.

2012 SOMO Annual Award Winners

Matt Cepeda, Emily Reyes, Terri Dallas and the Rash family were all recognized for their outstanding contributions to Special Olympics Missouri at the 2013 Leadership Conference Jan 19-20 in Branson. Each year, Special Olympics Missouri salutes those who have made significant contributions to the Special Olympics movement throughout the past year. Each area nominee is submitted for statewide recognition, and the overall winners were announced at the Leadership Conference.

Outstanding Athlete Matthew CepedaOUTSTANDING ATHLETE: Matthew Cepeda, Kansas City Metro Area

At competitions Matt can always been seen trying his hardest and cheering for others. What is most impressive about Matt is his ability to be a leader in his school. He has become a huge voice around Missouri, but especially in Kansas City, for recruiting youth volunteers. He is the chairman for his school’s Fan Club and is the co-chair of Missouri’s Youth Activation Council. Beyond all this, Matt gives 100 percent to whatever sport he is playing, which says volumes since he plays eight sports!

Outstanding Volunteer Emily ReyesOUTSTANDING VOLUNTEER: Emily Reyes, Southwest Area

During her freshman year in high school in 2005, Emily volunteered to help with her school’s Special Olympics team. After that introduction, he became certified to coach bowling, basketball and track. Since that time, she has served as a counselor at Athlete Sports Camp and participated in many special events. Emily recently finished her four year term on the National Youth Activation Council for Special Olympics, Inc. She’s traveled the country as part of this prestigious group. She continues to stay involved even while in college.

Outstanding Coach Terri DallasOUTSTANDING COACH: Terri Dallas, St. Louis Metro Area

For the past 25 years, Terri has coached SOMO athletes. She has brought countless athletes out of their shell and introduced them to a new way to make friends and build confidence through sports. She organizes and coaches six sports and hundreds of athletes in Jefferson County. When one of Terri’s athletes qualified for the 2011 World Games in bocce, Terri was inspired to begin fundraising for a state-of-the-art bocce court for all the athletes through her program.

Outstanding Family RashOUTSTANDING FAMILY: The Rash family, Northwest Area 

The success of the Lake Viking Polar Plunge is due in large part to the Rash Family. Six years ago they stepped up to start the plunge at Lake Viking. Both Judy and James pour their heart and soul into the planning and fundraising for this event. James has become a coach for their son Pierce’s basketball and flag football teams. The whole family continues to seek new ways to improve our program and offer opportunities for everyone to participate.

Congratulations to all of our winners! Their outstanding contributions helped make this a great year for Special Olympics Missouri.

SO Get Into It: Teaching Inclusion to Middle Schoolers

Linda Wiederholt, left, with two of her daughters and her brother, Dan

Linda Wiederholt, left, with her brother, Dan Schieber

I grew up in a loving family with a Special Olympics athlete. My brother, a National Games gold medalist, has taught me many valuable life lessons even though he is 12 years younger than me. As we grew up, he could make me laugh when I was down, smile when I really wanted to throw objects in anger, and to love everyone without a thought with how they may look, act or behave. I wish I could make friends as easily as he could, but he did teach me a few tricks. I have tried to teach my students the same lessons that he taught me.

The majority of the teachers and students that I work with unfortunately have not experienced life as I have growing up with my brother. I have seen teachers fight inclusion of special education students stating that it makes too much work. I have observed students make fun of others, and many times it is the students who are not as talented or “different” than others. I do not stand by and watch, but provide learning moments. A teacher can’t be everywhere at once, so many of these learning moments are missed and students are hurt. I attempt to teach my sixth grade students acceptance weekly through class meeting utilizing the Special Olympics “Get Into It” curriculum. These activities are to educate, motivate, and activate students to make a difference in their classroom, school, and community.

PH South ClinicThese character education activities stress lessons against bullying, acceptance of all, inclusion, and changing the culture of schools. To give you an idea on how I try to make a difference, I want to share one of my favorite activities. I group my students in the room with a majority of one group being the lower leveled students. The groups are given a piece of paper in which they are to answer the question. It is a phrase in Latin so no one has a clue except the one group that secretly has the answer on the paper. They have been prepped so they start talking about how easy it is to solve the problem and make fun of the other groups. After several minutes, discussion begins on how everyone feels. The “smart” students finally get a taste of how they often make the students with learning disabilities feel. My students walk out of the room feeling different and do think before they make fun of students who struggle in the class. I facilitate, but through activities students learn valuable lessons. All the teachers in my building can pull up the activities on our building blackboard so it does not stop with my room. Not only do I work with the students in my home base, but I facilitate teachers doing the same activities during our district’s professional development days. As a parent, you can suggest the following site to the teachers of your child: http://www.specialolympics.org/getintoit

PH South friendsProject UNIFY also sponsors Spread the Word to End the Word. My building spends one week during the year emphasizing the use of positive words instead of the hurtful r-word. Each of the eight teams is responsible for a school-wide presentation during morning broadcasts. Each individual is given an opportunity to sign the banner pledging not to use the r-word. Once the week is complete, I then refer back to it quite often. You can make the pledge yourself and find out more information at http://www.r-word.org . Once again, it is activities, not lectures, that make the students think of others in a more positive manner.

Technology has been a tool in which to get other teachers and students involved in the district. An email to Student Council advisors and A+ coordinators brings volunteers to my practices. Some of these volunteers become Unified Partners with the two high school Unified basketball teams. Many still want to volunteer even after they have completed their community service hours and as they say they are hooked for life. I have had students walk by our practice, ask what is going on, and then ask if they could help. They are still helping six years later. An email to the basketball coaches and we have a clinic set up for the athletes. Students spread the word to help keep our program moving in the right direction.

01-21-12 113The life lessons that my brother taught me many years ago are hopefully being transferred to the many students that I touch today.

Linda Wiederholt is a teacher at Plaza 6th Grade Center in the Park Hill School District. She is also a coach and volunteer for SOMO’s KC Metro Area.  

Bernhardt serves community in and out of SOMO

When Justin Bernhardt became involved with Special Olympics, he was a shy and reserved teenager. To meet him now, you would have trouble believing that. Over the course of his years as a SOMO athlete, Justin has grown into one of the strongest young leaders in the state – inside or outside of Special Olympics.

He was one of only five freshmen named to Hazelwood West High School’s student council and currently serves as co-president of the Youth Activation Council for SOMO. This year, he attended the Missouri Association of Student Councils Leadership Workshop and SOMO’s Sports Camp in back-to-back weeks, sharing what he learned with both groups.

“MASC teaches me different things that I can take back to my school to help our student council,” Justin says. “Even though we both do things maybe in different ways, we still have the same goal.”

YAC is currently developing future plans for the “Spread The Word To End The Word” campaign across the state, a movement encourages people to end the use of the word “retarded.” Justin is responsible for starting that campaign at his high school.

“The partnership with MASC and SOMO is working so well because they really are about the same thing and that’s teaching others that we are all the same in one way or another,” Justin says.

After his week with MASC, Justin was fired up to engage with his friends at SOMO’s Athlete Sports Camp and to serve as one of three veteran campers arriving early to help set up. At the dance on Thursday night, Justin joined Matt Cepeda and Rachel Antal in teaching the entire camp a dance they learned at MASC’s workshop. He says the best part, though, is always trying new sports and meeting new athletes and volunteers.

“I got inspired by the other athletes too,” Justin says. “It helped me kind of accept my challenges a lot more.”

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.

Parents

  • 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.

Advocates

  • 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 www.r-word.org 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 dawson@somo.org.

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.