On International Volunteer Day, remember what we do in our schools and communities locally really does contribute to changing the world.
When I returned home from my amazing experience in Aspen as a Bezos Scholar, my educator, Caryn Stedman, and I organized the MLC Global Ideas Festival. At the time I was very interested in different human rights and humanitarian issues. Our ideas festival was a multi-week series of awareness events on three important issues: the genocide in Darfur, global health, and modern day slavery. We wanted to empower students and community members to learn about global issues and think about what they could do in their lives to make a difference. That could be making a conscious consumer choice to buy fair-trade products, advocating with legislators, volunteering to educate others, or donating to non-profits active in these causes. We aimed to take the global and make it local.
Following the theme of my Ideas Festival, I chose to major in international relations and political science at the University of Pennsylvania and concentrated my academics, extracurricular, and work experiences on human rights and international development. However, at the time I had not considered how one deeply personal area of my life was also related to a global issue that does not get much attention: disability rights.
Disability has always been a part of my life. My younger sister, Erin, has autism. When I graduated from high school, I had not considered, if any, how autism would play a role in my life outside of my family.
Autism followed me on my study abroad experience in China. I met an academic studying autism in China and was a volunteer intern at a local disability rights NGO, where I learned that individuals with disabilities and their families in China face overwhelming challenges, including ignorance and a shortage of educational and support programs. I had the opportunity to take my family’s struggles and experiences and put them in a global context.
After my experience in China, I did all I could to educate myself about the issue of disability on a global scale, and what I found, or lack thereof, disturbed me.
All over the world, people with disabilities are often forgotten and marginalized, lacking basic human rights and opportunities. I couldn’t believe this issue had never come up in any of my studies or work in human rights. This cemented my desire to be a part of the movement, to bring disability awareness and support onto the international development agenda.
This has become not only my career, but my calling. I am currently the Manager of Unified Schools at Special Olympics. My work focuses on increasing the amount of students worldwide who take part in Unified Sports, a program that fosters social inclusion by bringing together people with and without intellectual disabilities to play and train together on the same team. Having grown up participating in Unified Sports and volunteering for Special Olympics with my family, it is amazing to put into perspective how we have been a part of this global movement that is active in over 170 countries. I have now learned that the local is also global.
This past March, I had the honor of helping to organize the Global Youth Leadership Summit at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Forty four youth and 26 mentors from 18 countries and 7 U.S. states attended, most in Unified Pairs of one youth with intellectual disability and one without. Similar to the Bezos Scholars Program, all the youth pairs received grants after the Summit to implement an impact project in their home, school, or community that promoted inclusion.
Looking at all the amazing Ideas Festivals that Bezos Scholars have put on and the work of the alumni inspires me as I help support these youth leaders in their projects. I want them to feel empowered to make a difference, like I did when I was a 17-year-old Bezos Scholar. I also want them to see how what they are doing together at the local level is really global, because it is contributing to a movement of change-makers building a better world.