March 6, 2013
By Elisabeth Leipholtz '15
On Monday nights in the Haehn Campus Center at the College of Saint Benedict the youthful lyrics to a song fill the air as children participating in the Young Athletes Program are welcomed one by one.
"Luke is here today, Luke is here today, let's clap our hands and stomp our feet, 'cause Luke is here today!"
The Young Athletes Program serves as an introduction to Special Olympics for children with and without intellectual disabilities. Children ages 2-7 can take part in the program, spending an hour each Monday from 5:45-6:45 p.m. focusing on a specific athletic skill such as kicking or throwing. The Young Athletes Program is held for an eight-week session in both the fall and spring, during which an average of 10 children attend each week. This program was established at CSB in fall 2012 by junior Danielle Liebl.
When Liebl was 5 months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder which affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. She has been an active member of Special Olympics since age 11.
"Before Special Olympics, I was very shy," Liebl said. "I didn't talk a lot, I was failing school, teachers gave me good grades out of pity and I was bullied a lot. Through joining I learned that I can do things, sometimes better than people without disabilities, but I just have different abilities than they do."
After interning with Special Olympics in summer 2012, Liebl was asked if she would be interested in serving as a site coordinator for the Young Athletes Program at CSB. She was quick to oblige, hoping to pass on positive experiences similar to her own.
"There was a child last semester with an intellectual disability," Liebl said. "He came in so shy and didn't know the other children, but by the end of the session he was best friends with everyone. It brought tears to my eyes to see the other children rally around him and cheer him on. It was a reminder of why I do this."
Though the program serves mainly to benefit the children involved, it also benefits the student volunteers, many of whom have established positive relationships with the participating families.
"It really opens your eyes," Liebl said. "You never know what kind of conversations you're going to have. One day it will be about pigs and mud, and the next it will be a conversation with a parent about what it was like when they first found out their child had a disability."
Currently there are 10 CSB/SJU student volunteers, including two site coordinators. The students are chosen from the on-campus club, Students for the Advancement of People with DIFFERbilities. The purpose of the club is to raise awareness for people with disabilities, to promote social inclusion of people with disabilities and to educate students and faculty on the CSB/SJU campuses about better ways to treat, interact, and build relationships with people with disabilities.
"I am constantly moved by my little sister, Julia, who has Down syndrome," said Sophia Korman, a CSB sophomore math and economics major and student volunteer. "Her love for life is a true source of inspiration and she helps me realize that life really is about the little things. She has a lasting impact on everyone she meets, accompanied by a smile that will light up your life. I volunteered with Special Olympics this fall as a Unified Partner and had the opportunity to play flag football with an amazing group of athletes. Their love for the game and passion to do their best inspired me to continue volunteering with different branches of Special Olympics, such as Young Athletes."
Emily Dunn is a parent of three, including a daughter with Down syndrome who has been attending the Monday night sessions since the initiation of the program. Dunn's family drives approximately 35 miles from Sauk Centre every Monday to attend the Young Athletes Program, which she heard about from her mother. Dunn is very appreciative of the opportunities which the Young Athletes Program and the student volunteers have provided her family.
"Harry (age 7) gets so excited," Dunn said. "He chooses coming here over going to wrestling practice. It's so nice to have something that the 3-year-old and 7-year-old can do together. This has been so great for Betsy's (age 3) development, as far as learning to follow instructions and participate in group activities."
Liebl, a theology and peace studies major, will graduate in December 2013. She plans to stay actively involved in eliciting change among students with intellectual disabilities. Even in her absence, the Young Athletes Program will continue at CSB.
"I have been transformed by these programs," Liebl said. "They have changed my life forever and I hope to someday educate teachers and children about how to make schools, students and classrooms more accessible and accepting for students with intellectual disabilities."