By Michael Edenzon
On Friday June 7th, I attended the 2013 Project UNIFY New Jersey Youth Activation Summit. My reasons for attending stemmed from my admiration of the Special Olympics movement, as well as from my awareness of the exclusion that its athletes face every day. My lifelong involvement with people with intellectual disabilities began at age 2, the day my family brought home my brother Zach. Zach was born with Down syndrome, and now, at the age of 15 competes regularly in local and state Special Olympics competitions. I must say, however, that not only is he my brother and my motivation, but he is also my best friend. As I have grown up, Zach’s experiences of exclusion have been mine as well. Thinking back to the times as kids on the playground, Zach was an afterthought to his peers who saw him as the “different” kid. My challenge, I felt, was to create an environment for kids like my brother that encourages friendships and inclusion across a diverse spectrum of intellectual capabilities that would grow with each person that it reached. In joining the New Jersey Youth Activation Committee (NJYAC), my friend Jack and I, both students at The Hun School, were looking to gain the tools necessary to mobilize and engage our peers in a movement to build relationships between people with and without intellectual disabilities.
Our morning began with a personal story told by the President of Special Olympics New Jersey about his personal experiences with, and feelings about, exclusion. As I looked around a full room of nearly one hundred of my peers, I listened to our call to action which said, “We expect you (NJYAC), to take what you learn here today, take it back to your schools, to your friends, and communities, and make a difference.” Our direction was set, and Jack and I began our day with the task of implementing the lessons about to be taught.
Sue Schank, a facilitation manager and content specialist of Disney’s Youth Education Series Program, spoke first about the different types of leaders and their characteristics. After seeing famous examples of each, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Walt Disney, we broke up into groups and answered a series of questions to help us identify what type of leader we want to be. Jack and I both found ourselves somewhere in between a visionary and collaborative leader. We wanted to lead from the front, yet still lead by example. I, more so than Jack, was a little surprised at the results. I was almost certain that I did not have any characteristics of a collaborative leader, but surprised as I was, I couldn’t help but be excited to be learning about myself and how to best work with others.
Our next speakers were Clement Coulston and Danielle Liebl members of the Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee. Clement and Danielle spoke about co-leadership and how to value the ideas and opinions of a group or partner. What I found most compelling about Danielle was her ability to speak to, and lead her peers amidst the challenges she faced growing up with an intellectual disability. For the first time, I saw individuals like my brother and Danielle as not just beneficiaries of the YAC’s efforts, but co-contributors to the global movement of Generation Unified. Clement and Danielle’s segment finished off with a video of Tim Shriver, Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics speaking at a rally in New Jersey. He encouraged the youth in the audience that they are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. At that point, Jack and I realized, we are a part of a national and worldwide effort to change the culture around those with intellectual disabilities, and that it was our responsibility as children and adolescents to change the world now, so we can live in it tomorrow. During lunch, we heard the stories of Miriam Darwiche and Maria Fisher who both spoke about their experiences with exclusion and the positive impact each of us could have by simply being a true friend to those who need one.
At this point Jack (15) and I (17), knew what was expected of us, but we still were unsure as to how we would answer our call to action once we left the campus of TCNJ that afternoon. The last segment addressed our uncertainties of how to create a unified generation.
A microphone was passed around the room, and students from each school were given the chance to share their efforts to date, as well as explain their plans to grow in the future. Members of the Rowan Unified Sports program concluded the segment by giving an overview of the startup and execution of their program, which was extremely popular in its first year on campus. Once each representative spoke, Jack and I were able to get a better idea of how we wanted to answer the call to action, and the different ways we could do it.
As the day winded down, Clement and Danielle joined us for one last team building activity before we left. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about myself and my leadership abilities as well as techniques on how to work alongside others who can contribute. The compelling stories of Danielle, Miriam, and Maria, gave Jack and I even greater motivation to take what we learned and use it to grow a Generation Unified in our schools and communities through programs similar to those at Rowan University. The summit was not only an informative experience for me, but a moving one.
Beginning this fall, Jack and I are organizing a Unified basketball league at the Hun School. Special Olympics athletes will be joining Hun students once a week to play in a fun, yet competitive basketball league, side by side as a unified team in an environment that fosters inclusion, unity, and friendships. We are starting small, but with the tools we gained at the NJYAS, we plan to grow with others as a part of the first Generation Unified. We also continue with Mr. Shriver’s message in mind, seeing the world that I want my brother and I to live in, is not one for tomorrow, but one for today.