#Inclusion revolution: Sandusky teens unite to bring awareness to Special Olympics and Inclusivity

Anisha Chopra recounts her time traveling to Florida for the Special Olympics USA Games with her Special Olympics partner, Kali.

Kali and I had been unified partners in Special Olympic regional games before and enjoyed each other's company. Our school psychologist recommended us to be selected to represent Ohio as youth leaders at the Special Olympic USA Games. I thought he was joking when he asked me if I wanted to go to Florida, but before you know it I am boarding a flight with Kali and others passionate about inclusion and athleticism. 

There was excitement and buzz in the air, with a hint of anxiety. Kali and I did not know what to expect from the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, but were overjoyed to be representing Ohio as Youth Leaders.

Kali was not the most social butterfly, whereas I want to talk to everybody and anybody around. Upon arriving in Florida, this changed. Collectively it became our goal to walk around the Olympic village and be recognized and acquainted with people we crossed paths with. We became friends with our fellow Youth Leaders, as an athlete and partner from each state attended the games and participated in the same activities. These were our closest bonds as after a day of initiatives and learning, we could sit at the pool and have a blast with them. Just arrived at the USA Games!

I had seen a change in Kali. Within just a few days, she went from being shy to a new confident version of herself. I realized that by simply being a friend for someone, they can be empowered.

Kali and I were sitting outside our hotel room with the new friends we made. It was getting close to midnight, but it felt like we could talk for hours to come. It was humid and there was a slight breeze, making the environment very comfortable. It felt like a movie. We were talking about our life to people we just met and were at a Disney resort.

Time felt like it was moving slowly but we still had a purpose and a big day tomorrow. We were to give a speech at the closing ceremony about our time at the USA Games and how we plan to spread inclusion back at our own school. I realized staying up late was not the smartest idea; we had not even begun planning out our speech yet. After saying goodnight to our friends, we went into our room and started writing. 

I wanted to have a back and forth dialogue with Kali as we spoke. When planning out the speech, I was making sure she was comfortable with the language and felt confident with it. Unfortunately, mid way through she dozed off. I was worried and hoped I knew her speaking patterns well enough to adequately finish the speech. 

This day arrived too quickly, we did not want this experience to end. Once we arrived at the closing ceremony, we took pictures with all the Youth Leaders and it was time. Waiting to be introduced near the podium, we were both nervous but I reassured Kali that there is no pressure, we have been with these people all week and we are just having a final conversation with them.

We hopped on the stage and spoke proudly into the mic about how amazing our experience was. Kali talked about her gratitude and how she liked engaging with the Young Athletes when we volunteered at a local elementary school. It was surreal. The shy girl I once knew was now standing beside me speaking to more than 100 people. We even did a separate interview afterwards where she gave me the biggest hug.

Watching her grow was inspiring. It is now my mission to make sure that others with and without intellectual disabilities are included and feel empowered to have a voice. Whether that is by making new friends or advocating for their needs, everyone deserves to feel comfortable in doing so. I am more aware of how I treat others and how people around me act because of Kali and our experiences. We continue to find initiatives to do together and ones we do as individuals. I have made a good friend and cannot wait to see what our future holds. Special Olympics was my calling in many ways, and the supportive and inclusive environment was one I meld into beautifully.

Anisha Chopra is a senior at Sandusky High School. In the future, she plans to become a child psychiatrist and continue advocating for inclusion.