by Kristen Kolombatovich, guest blogger
Students and educators from Mercer, Middlesex, Essex and Monmouth counties came together for the first Project UNIFY New Jersey Youth Leadership Workshop at the Special Olympics New Jersey Sports Complex on Saturday November 17. The conference theme, “You’re More Alike Than Different,” set the tone for students and educators to learn about and discuss the many things that unite us, as well as appreciate our differences as the traits that make us unique.
The attendees, representing Project UNIFY New Jersey programs at New Brunswick High School, Notre Dame High School, Hamilton Township, Holmdel Township and Hazlet Public Schools, learned about building friendships, interacting with peers with different abilities, and how to launch Youth Activation Committees in their schools.
Marc Edenzon, President of SONJ, opened the workshop with compelling remarks about his experiences as the Dad of an athlete. He shared the inspiring story of a young man in his community who pushed beyond his fears to organize a Unified sports event for his Bar Mitzvah. That event has grown to include over 70 athletes and 70 partners playing everything from basketball and volleyball to soccer and golf throughout the year.
Marc emphasized the power and potential they have as students, friends, teammates and peers to make a difference by creating schools and communities where all kids are welcomed and accepted.
The biggest treat of the day was having Special Olympics Global Ambassador Loretta Claiborne speak about the impact of Project UNIFY. Her message was clear and powerful: all it takes is one person to change a school community. Whether choosing to join a peer at the lunch table or simply saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” in the hallway, each person has the power to start the change in how students with different abilities are treated in schools. She asked the students to put themselves in the shoes of someone with a disability and imagine how it feels to be bullied every day. It was a powerful speech that definitely got us all more motivated!
Miguel A. Ulloa, M.Ed., Academic Coach and Project UNIFY Advisor from New Brunswick High School said, “The conference was a learning experience for all that attended. As an advisor, I was glad hear about the different activities that other schools are doing. Being that this is New Brunswick’s second year as a Project UNIFY school, we would love to incorporate ideas from other programs as we help to expand our program. The students’ experience was a positive one. They were chosen as our leaders for many reasons, but at the conference they learned what Project UNIFY really is. Hearing the stories from Marc Edenzon and Loretta Claiborne really made an impact on the students. They listened to every word. As students, they always hear about the fact that they can make a difference, but after the conference, they understood that they have the greatest impact on their peers and can bring about change needed.”
The group learned first-hand why Project UNIFY is so important from Special Olympics Athlete and PUNJ Youth Leader Lexi Aikin of Hamilton Township. Lexi shared how it felt to be called a “retard” by other kids in her school and how it motivated her to join with one of her peers to organize a the “Spread the Word to End the Word” Campaign. Lexi applied for a Project UNIFY grant and worked with her special services director to run a district-wide campaign titled “Aware Because We Care” last year in all the Hamilton Township Schools.
Overall, the workshop was a great success. Everyone walked away with new ideas to bring back to their schools and a network of peers to support their efforts. Faculty advisors left understanding what steps they need to take and how they can they assist their students in any way possible.
We look forward to seeing these remarkable youth leaders again on February 2nd for the Project UNIFY Youth Leaders Program Planning Conference. Congratulations and thank you to all who attended for keeping the Project UNIFY movement alive and strong in New Jersey!