Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post from Martha Jo Braycich, Director, Organizational Development, Foundations and Public Institutions, Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia

The Unified Girls’ volleyball team in Krusevac, Serbia

The Unified Girls’ volleyball team in Krusevac, Serbia

In 2012, USAID and Special Olympics partnered to implement Inclusion for All in Serbia and Montenegro. Together, USAID and Special Olympics designed a program to serve as a platform for community education about the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities. Throughout the different aspects of the program, key themes of democratic principles, gender equality and active citizenship are highlighted as being crucial to advancing the rights and opportunities of people with intellectual disabilities.

During the month of March, Inclusion for All reached a new milestone – the completion of 17 capacity building seminars. The seminars, which were well covered by local media, sought to educate the community about people with intellectual disabilities and identify innovative ways to encourage the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities into the mainstream community through youth outreach. In addition, all participants learned how to create two new Unified Sports® teams in football or basketball as a part of the seminar’s program. These capacity building seminar participants come from many different professions including local officials, teachers from both mainstream and special schools, sports coaches, volunteers, family members and athletes.

Developing Unified Sports® as a part of community education has been an important aspect of this program. A second significant milestone was reached in March for Unified Sports® when the Inclusion for All  program achieved their goal of forming 34 new Unified Sports® teams in basketball, football and volleyball, with girls as 50% of the new recruits. The Unified Sports® programs started through Inclusion for All have not only provided training and competition for youth in Serbia and Montenegro, but also inspired attitudinal change and camaraderie among neighbors. Recently, Ognjen Avramovic, 12, a Unified football partner in Montenegro, spoke to his local coordinator about his teammate, Unified athlete Dragan Paljevic, 13. He said,

Dragan is my neighbor and I have known him for long time but I never had contact with him.  I only knew him as having an intellectual disability. After a few trainings we already became friends. I visit him in his home and he also comes to my place and I meet him with my family and with my friends from school. I know that we will be friends after this project, probably to the end of life.”

Because of barriers broken down by Inclusion for All through Unified Sports®, people like Dragan and Ognjen are becoming friends after years of passing each other by without so much as a word. Many friendships like theirs have been formed on other Unified Sports® teams in Serbia and Montenegro, creating bonds and changing attitudes among youth that will last into adulthood, long after Inclusion for All is finished.

Teams like the one that Dragan and Ognjen play on practice once a week and participate in a comprehensive competition schedule. Each area has a local coordinator who interacts with athletes, parents and coaches on a regular basis.  On these teams, youth with and without intellectual disabilities are able to learn about each other and overcome stereotypes that prevent the inclusion of individuals with ID in schools, sport clubs and society in general.

Over the course of the program, many Unified Sports® athletes and partners have expressed their enthusiasm for Inclusion for All to their local coordinators. Among the most powerful words demonstrating the program’s impact are those of Unified football partner Valentina Jovanovic, from Kragujevac, Serbia, who told her local coordinator,

I am very happy to be on this team! I have never spent much time with another girl who went to a special school, and I never thought that I would play sports on a same team with them, but it is absolutely brilliant. I have made so many new friends, and I am learning how to play football. What can be better than this?

The Inclusion for All project comes to a close in February 2014.

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