By Susan Colacello
Project UNIFY New Jersey Project Director
Erin Meyer and Lindsey Conlan, Project UNIFY New Jersey Youth Leaders from Holmdel High School, joined the Special Olympics New Jersey staff at the 2013 Special Olympics North America Conference in North Carolina this past July. Athlete, Erin and Partner, Lindsey, attended the week-long event as our state delegates for the national Project UNIFY Youth Activation Council meeting. They found the conference, themed “Fuel the Passion,” very appropriately named! Each day was packed with phenomenal speakers, information and resources. Most importantly, our Project UNIFY delegates met fellow Youth Activation Council members and Special Olympics staff, athletes and supporters from all 50 states, the Caribbean and Jamaica.
Lindsey and Erin were among approximately 150 Youth Activation Leaders and Advisors attending the Project UNIFY meeting at the Special Olympics North America Conference, which drew nearly 1,000 participants. The meeting, led by the National Youth Activation Council members, was designed as a “train the trainer” workshop, preparing the state pairs to introduce two new tools, created by National YAC, to their programs; The Inclusive Youth Leadership Guide and the Unified Sports Student Guidebook. In addition, they participated in numerous collaboration and reflection sessions, reviewing the information they were learning at the SONA conference sessions and exploring ways they will take it home to enrich their state programs.
A major highlight of the conference was attending the opening session with Dr. Timothy Shriver, Ph.D, Chairman and CEO, Special Olympics. Dr. Shriver presented an inspirational reflection on the history of the Special Olympics movement, combining organizational history, family memories and archival images of the Kennedy family and his Mother with her sister Rosemary, to tell the powerful story of Mrs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s passion to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. He left the packed room completely moved and energized by his call to action to bring this remarkable vision of his Mother’s forward to leverage Special Olympics sports, health, education and community outreach programs to spirit a worldwide “dignity revolution.” They also had the opportunity to attend extraordinary conference sessions like “Creating Dream Teams–Thinking, Feeling and Acting like an Extraordinary Leader,” by Dr. Rebecca Kraus; a powerful presentation on Special Olympics partnership with Nike campaign, Designed to Move, an inspiring and comical “vision for the future” by Olympic Swimming Champion Mark Tewskbery, and a final call to action by the remarkable Special Olympics multi-gold medalist, Global Messenger, Lorretta Claiborne.
Special Olympics Project UNIFY is a collaboration with school communities across the country to engage young people with and without disabilities as leaders promoting acceptance and inclusion in their schools, utilizing the sports and education initiative of Special Olympics. This fall Special Olympics New Jersey entered its 5th year in bringing Project UNIFY to schools throughout the state. Over 300 youth leaders in 35 schools and 3 districts are currently engaged in making a difference in their schools through Youth leadership, Unified sports and whole-school engagement. The students organize disability awareness and Unified sports programs, Partners clubs and Respect Campaigns, Special Olympics Fans in the Stands and Volunteer activities, and an array of other educational and fun initiatives aimed at bringing kids of all abilities together as classmates, teammates and friends. These young people are taking the lead in making their schools communities places where all are welcomed, respected and have the opportunities to reach their full potential.
Congratulations Lindsey and Erin for doing an incredible job of representing New Jersey! “Fueled” with inspiration, knowledge and a national network of friends, they are ready to share what they’ve learned with their Project UNIFY peers in schools across the state beginning this September.