Innovators of the Week: Leah and Rochea

The following post was written by Leah and Rochea, two Special Olympics youth leaders from Washington. The pair make it their mission to strengthen inclusion in their community. Check out how they #innovateforinclusion!

We first met at a coffee shop about a year ago. We didn’t know each other, but were brought together out of a love for sports, community, and building friendships. We were both wildly excited about starting a team together, and the Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant seemed like the perfect way to do this. Ten months later and we have had several individuals involved, have developed a sustainable club on the Whitman College campus, and have built wonderful friendships.

We had a vision to enhance the existing, yet unofficial, Unified Soccer team at Whitman College. The team had been informally organized for a few years by a previous student but was eventually neglected. With the Youth Innovation Grant, we have been able to purchase the equipment and build the momentum needed to gain official recognition and funding from Whitman College as a school club. We are now mid-way through our season. We practice once a week to enhance our skills and further our friendships. There are 12 students and 12 community members on the team. Together we are bettering our soccer performance, improving social skills, and bringing people together.

This project has been an extremely empowering experience for both of us. Rochea has loved stepping into a leadership role. She recruited participants, designed advertisements, and brought lots of energy and excitement to the team. The leadership role was initially overwhelming for her. However, Rochea learned to work hard to ensure the success of the team. She learned that the most important part came in bringing people together. Success was easy once the team united through laughter, talking, and kicking the ball around. Our individual differences in ability, personality, and soccer experience were of no issue as we developed new friendships. Rochea has gained comfort and confidence in leadership roles and will be prepared to take on other similar positions in the future.

Leah was similarly affected through the project. As a new program on campus, the project was entirely self-driven. The only people keeping us accountable were ourselves. This independence throughout the project emphasized the importance of the project to Leah. She realized how much she cared about creating an inclusive space on the college campus for people of all abilities. The school has a social club for people with and without disabilities, but this is the first sport-focused club. This is a significant difference because it creates a more collaborative space for people of all abilities to play and practice together.

We could not have created this team without each other. We each brought different ideas and skills to the table that made this team possible. This project has further connected Whitman College with the local Walla Walla community by enhancing access to campus, increasing awareness of the differences we all have, and most importantly developing many strong friendships.

The two of us did not even know each other 10 months ago, but now we see each other around town and at practices all the time. We are just one example of the many incredible friendships that have been built through our project. Thanks to the Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant, many more friendships will be built in the years to come at Whitman College and in the Walla Walla communities.

The 2018 Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant initiative is supported through partnerships with Hasbro, Inc., The Samuel Family Foundation, theOffice of Special Education Programs at the United States Department of Education, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and the Lions Clubs International Foundation. Learn more about these inspiring projects atSpecialOlympicsGlobalYouthProjects.org.