Youth Ambassador has eye-opening experience at Schools Conference

Elyse Whittemore is a junior at Auburn High School and was selected as a 2019 Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassador. She attended the Special Olympics Schools Conference in San Diego California, February 2019 along with fellow Youth Ambassador Sydney Meininger and their mentor Alison Deluca.

Elyse and Sydney with a Spread the Word sign

Sydney (left) and Elyse (right) attended leadership seminars and visited an inclusive school district while in San Diego

Wow.  The only word to describe the 2019 Unified Champion Schools Conference in San Diego, California.  The experience of attending this conference was eye-opening, life changing, and one I, along with my fellow Youth Leaders will never forget.  The Youth Leader portion of the conference was three days long and packed with workshops, general sessions, a school visit and a night out. All of which taught us an abundance of new ideas to bring back to our home states.

My name is Elyse Whittemore, I am a junior at Auburn High School and a U.S. Youth Ambassador for the Northeast Region.  I am so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to attend this conference with the eleven other U.S. Youth Ambassadors and thirty other youth leaders from California, Tennessee and Arkansas.  I attended the conference with my fellow youth ambassador Sydney Meininger, from Nashoba Regional High School and our Mentor, Alison Deluca, from Auburn High School.

I cannot wait to use what I have learned in my own school and throughout Massachusetts.

Upon arriving in San Diego, we had a bit of free time before our first session.  Sydney, Alison and I had lunch at the Barefoot Bar & Grill and checked into our hotel rooms.  Then, we headed to our welcome session and dinner. Our welcome session was mainly introductory, we did many ice breakers, activities and had a pizza party.  Instantly, every student in the room had become friends and had already started planning ways to hangout and bond in their free time. After the first session, it was very late and everyone was tired from traveling, so we all headed to bed to prepare for the jam-packed day tomorrow.  

The next day was filled with bonding, workshops, and leadership training. We started the day of with breakfast all together and then headed right into workshops. Our first workshop dealt with inclusive youth leadership. We learned in depth about what the words inclusion and youth leadership truly meant.  We also learned more about ourselves as a leader, including our best leadership qualities and the people whom we admire the most. It was extremely interesting to hear how each of us admired different people and leaders.  As a whole, we ended up agreeing we admired leaders who were inclusive, inspiring, encouraging and supportive.

After a quick break, we moved into our second workshop which a focused on public speaking and developing our elevator pitch. First, we discussed the tips and tricks for delivering an impactful speech. Then, we worked on creating our own elevator pitches. An elevator pitch is a 30 sec. statement about yourself, trying to hook someone into wanting to get to know more about you.  I found creating and practicing the elevator pitch to be super useful, because not only could we use it to introduce ourselves to others at the conference, but we can also use it at an abundance of other events and in our everyday lives. Finally, we got to break for lunch and spent time eating with our new friends.  Following lunch, we had our third workshop, this dealt with social media and digital engagement. We learned how to engage and draw people into what we are posting about Special Olympics and inclusion, as well as how to use it effectively. After learning this information, we used it to lead the adult session and teach them how to use social media.  I found this experience to be helpful for both the youth leaders and adults, both groups were able to learn from it and take new information away. As youth leaders, we were able to learn how to effectively present and teach new information to others. Each of these session were extremely informative and I will definitely use these new ideas learned in the future.  

It is crazy how a group of kids from all over the country, who don’t know each other become so close, so quickly. Over the course of these three days, we truly became best friends.

Youth leaders from around the country in San Diego

After a full day of training we had about two hours of free time.  The other youth leaders and I decided to hit the hot-tub and pool for bonding.  When free time ended, we headed over to the main conference center for the official opening session for both the adults and students.  This session featured a student panel, remarks from Tim Shriver, Beau Doherty and an abundance of other figures in Special Olympics while being emceed by two youth leaders.  It was awesome to hear and learn about Special Olympics past and origin, as well as learn about ideas for the future. Not only was this session extremely informative, it was a great time to bond with the other youth leaders.  (We even started our own mini dance session before it began!). At the end of the opening session, we headed back to our room’s to change into our pajamas before grabbing In-n-Out Burger for dinner. Once we grabbed dinner we headed back to one of youth leaders’ rooms.  We hung out and ate dinner while one leader started a campfire on the beach. Then, we headed out to the fire where we talked and roasted s’mores. As the fire died out, we made our way back to the hotel room where we played some intense games of Uno. It is crazy how a group of kids from all over the country, who don’t know each other become so close, so quickly.  Over the course of these three days, we truly became best friends. Uno and a campfire was the perfect way to end our busy day together!

Sydney and Elyse with Tim Shriver

Elyse and Sydney took a selfie with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver

The final day of conference was filled with exploring San Diego.  We visited an inclusive school district and spent the night out in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego.  But, before we could do that we had breakfast outside along the water, which was a peaceful view. Then, we loaded the busses and headed to Olympian High School.  It was great to be able to drive through San Diego and see what the city looked like. About 2,800 students attend Olympian High School and it truly is apart of an inclusive district.  First, we heard from a panels of adults who worked in the district. It was nice to be able to hear all their different ideas and views. Afterwards, we headed outside to their football field where we rotated through stations dealing with topics such as the R-Word, Youth Crossfit, Unified Cheer and Youth Leadership.  Each station provided us with many new ideas, such as a pinky-promise campaign for the R-Word and a new perspective on many topics. Then, we headed back into the school to watch a Unified Basketball game between Olympian High School and their rivals. The basketball game was beyond inspiring and it was incredible to see a gym full of people cheering these athletes on.  It was also incredible to see over 100 cheerleaders from around the district cheer on the teams throughout the game and halftime. After the game, we had lunch and wrapped up our time at the school and made our way back to the resort. Back at the resort, we had a meeting for the Youth Ambassadors, here we split up into jobs/ roles and came up with plans for the future. It was great to have just the Youth Ambassadors all in one room together!

Finally, we got ready and headed out for Southern California night!  This night was an amazing time and opportunity to see and explore San Diego.  We ate at the Underground Elephant, a large restaurant and bar perfect to eat and socialize.  Sydney and I played a couple rounds of mini-basketball and grabbed a bunch of desserts before we headed outside to explore downtown.  We got to see the Padres Stadium and take our picture outside, which was super cool. As we finished up exploring we grabbed a shuttle back to the hotel and headed to pool and hot tub to spend our last night together with the other Youth Leaders!

As the conference itself was winding down, Sydney, Alison and I still had a full day of exploring to do on the fourth day.  We grabbed breakfast outside, hit up the gift shop, climbed to the top of the observation tower to see the whole resort and spent some time at the beach.  It was the best way to end a busy week! I am beyond thankful for this unbelievable experience and the opportunity to meet and become so close with other leaders from around the country.  I cannot wait to use what I have learned in my own school and throughout Massachusetts. This trip is one I will definitely not forget!


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