At the age of 23, Jenni Newbury has a daunting list of accomplishments: Coca-Cola Scholar, Presidential Scholar, founder of CampPALS, and Princeton graduate. But the thing she’s most proud of is being the sister of Jason, her 21-year old brother with Down’s Syndrome. Since she was in elementary school, Jenni has created ways to include Jason in every part of life– going to his therapy appointments, teaching him her homework, starting clubs for kids with and without disabilities to do fun things together, and at the age of 16, founding CampPALS (Peer Assisted Learning Support): a week-long sleepover camp for Down’s Syndrome young adults that now hosts 120 kids on a one-to-one basis with volunteer counselors.
Jenni also has a new job with Special Olympics Project UNIFY to establish a service learning/anti-bullying curriculum in schools around the country. She loves her job and her camp because they give her a chance to advocate for inclusion, get people involved with children and adults with disabilities, and break down stereotypes that prevent us from seeing how much we can learn from people who are –by society’s standards – “handicapped.”
The magic of the Special Olympics is that it allows the disabled to fully participate and experience the acceptance, dignity, respect, skill, courage, friendship, and sheer joy of playing a sport, being on a team, and doing one’s personal best. Along the way, it also shows the world what the disabled are capable of achieving. Started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver as a competition in her own backyard, and headed today by her son, Tim Shriver, the Special Olympics are now held in 170 different counties, on 7 continents, touching the lives of some 3 million athletes and transforming the way they are seen in society. And for the 547,000 volunteers who work with the Special Olympics, the journey is equally transformative, as Jenni would be the first to tell you.
“Through Jason, I have learned what it means to be strong, courageous, sincere, and honest,” she says. “Jason has shown me how to forgive others, how to experience joy in the smallest of moments, and how to love radically.”
Jenni’s words remind me of one of my all-time favorite stories. It was a big Special Olympics race, and the disabled athletes had trained for months. Their coaches and families were all on the sidelines, cheering them on. The starting gun went off and the runners sprinted away from the gate, but suddenly one runner tripped and fell to the ground. The crowd gasped in dismay and the other runners looked back to see what had happened. As the crowd exhorted them to keep on running, each of the runners stopped, turned around, and walked back to help the fallen runner get to his feet and hug him in consolation.
I can’t tell that story without choking up – because to me, it’s the absolute pinnacle of Olympic greatness. Maybe not in athleticism but in sportsmanship, respect, and knowing what’s really important in life. In fact, that story kind of sums up what I’ve tried to do with my 365 project: turn around in the middle of the race and go back to help somebody who fell.
My $100 today goes to the Special Olympics for all the transformative, loving, inspirational work they do! To join me, click here (and all donations will be MATCHED til year’s end!)