Friend to all
Participating in the 2013 Special Olympics’ Global Youth Activation Summit didn’t turn Caitlynn Cantrell into an advocate for people with disabilities and differences. She already was one.
But it did strengthen her resolve. “It’s our differences that make us special and interesting,” said Caitlynn, who spent 12 days at the youth summit in Pyeong Chang, South Korea, in February.
She has been picked on herself, she said. “I know the feeling of being different, feeling like an outcast,” she said.
That has only made her more eager to stand up for others.
A sophomore at McMinnville High School, Caitlynn has plans that reach beyond her school and her peer group.
For instance, she wants to become a Life Flight nurse so she can help people. In her spare time, she plans to continue volunteering with Special Olympics.
And that’s not all.
“I want to change the world,” she said. “I want society to change so we love everybody.”
Caitlynn had the opportunity to attend the youth summit because she is active in Project Unify, an international effort to bring recognition and respect to everyone, including people with developmental and physical handicaps. She is one of about a dozen Oregon teens on the state’s Project Unify Youth Activation Committee.
Each state could enter a team in the competition to represent the U.S. at the summit. Caitlynn was named part of Team Oregon along with Stanley Stimson, a Special Olympics athlete from Rainier, and Alix Wasteney, the Project Unify adult leader.
They went through interviews and answered questions about their leadership efforts and activities. Caitlynn said she told the judges she wants to spread the word that it’s possible to make positive changes, even if you’re just one person and you’re still young — a concept she not only believes in wholeheartedly, but tries to exemplify.
Last summer, Oregon became a finalist for the chance to go to South Korea. A few weeks later, Caitlynn learned Team Oregon would join teams from California and Arizona on the all-expense-paid trip.
She and the U.S. delegates met several times during the fall and early winter to prepare for the journey.
Still, it didn’t really seem real to Caitlyn. After all, she said, “How do you take that in, that you’re going to another country 5,000 miles away?”
Even when she was trying to narrow down her possessions to meet the 50-pound luggage weight limit, it still seemed like a dream.
But when the U.S. group landed in South Korea, it briefly seemed like a nightmare. “Nobody spoke English,” Caitlynn said, recalling the incredibly busy Pyeong Chang airport.
But she and her fellow delegates soon found the Special Olympics welcoming area, where they received help in the language they could understand.
The experience opened Caitlynn’s eyes to the challenges non-English speakers face in our country. “Not understanding the language can get frustrating,” she said.
The Oregon team stayed at the Kensington Flora Hotel, which was beautiful, she said. The rooms were tiny and the beds small and hard, both examples of cultural preferences that set South Korea and the U.S. apart.
Most of the Youth Activation Summit activities took place in the hotel’s big conference rooms. Delegates from each country made presentations about their efforts. Caitlynn talked about Project Unify’s activities in Oregon and about her “Stop the R Word” campaign.
She was encouraged to hear that her peers share the same goals and face similar challenges. “We were all a family there,” she said. “We all had the same drive, the same passion to change the world. That’s amazing beyond words.”
She made friends from various places, such as Egypt, the Isle of Man and Bahrain, collecting the souvenir pins they’d brought to share as well as their email addresses and Facebook listings. She plans to keep in touch with them.
The delegates also discussed how to reach other people in their schools and communities. Caitlynn said she picked up some ideas she plans to use at Mac High.
She would like to organize a polar plunge event, in which participants show their commitment to making positive change by jumping into cold water. Caitlynn participated in such an event, nicknamed “freezin’ for a reason,” two years ago in Portland.
She also wants to stage a youth rally at Mac High that will attract students not only from McMinnville, but the surrounding area.
Toward that goal, Caitlynn already has seed money: the Mattel corporation gave each student on the Oregon team $1,000 to be used for unity activities. The funds will help her plan and organize the rally, which will including speakers, informational booths and activities.
She recently helped with Project Unify’s R Word Campaign at a Portland Trail Blazers game.
Last week, she and friends from the Life Skills program, in which she is a student aide, organized a “Stop the R Word” event during the noon hour at Mac High. They handed out cupcakes donated by Roth’s, and asked students to sign an anti-R word pledge on a huge sheet of paper. By the end of lunch, the paper was covered with signatures.
It was another in a series of activities and events Caitlynn has organized since she was in middle school.
At Duniway, she began helping in the Life Skills class for students with disabilities. She saw their capabilities, their great sense of humor, their unconditionally loving nature.
“They’re my most amazing friends,” she said.
But she was shocked that some of her peers in mainstream classes wouldn’t give them a chance. She began her campaign to teach others that everyone deserves to be treated well.
She led by example, going out of her way to talk to everyone and treating everyone equally. “Don’t put others down to make yourself feel better,” she told her classmates. She urged others to think about how they would feel if they were the target of teasing — or if they had a child or other relative in that situation.
After attending her first Project Unify youth rally, Caitlynn organized a “Stop the ‘R’ Word” assembly at Duniway. The effort was well-received at school and really made a difference, she said.
Her work to promote respect and acceptance also led to her being named the National Maria Shriver Lovin’ Scoopful Compassion Award winner in 2011.
“Now I’m still going and nothing’s going to stop me,” said Caitlynn, who is pushing to make Project Unify more of a presence at Mac High, as well. “I’m trying to do small things that will make a difference. And if it takes me until senior year, then it takes me ‘til senior year.”
Mac High has a Unity Club that is working on inclusivity at the school. The club, which involves many students, hosted a dance for all comers last year and is planning another this spring.
Efforts by the club and individuals such as Caitlynn are having an influence.
Last fall, when students chose their homecoming court, several Life Skills students were elected along with mainstream kids. Caitlynn was thrilled when Juan Palacios and other friends were called up during the homecoming assembly.
“I cried the whole time,” she said, remembering her happy tears.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.
Experiences in South Korea
They met celebrities such as singer Lauren Alaina, Olympic skater Apolo Ohno, an NBA star and Cindy McCain, wife of former presidenial candidate John McCain.
“It was way cool to see how enthused they are about Special Olympics,” said Caitlynn.
They also met some of the Special Olympics athletes, including a Portland snowboarder who was representing Team USA. And they watched some of the competitions, such as speed skating, figure skating and floor hockey.
During their spare time, the delegates toured the city and Korean countryside, as well. Caitlynn marvelled at the displays of fruits and dried fish in the marketplaces, the mix of traditional garb and Western clothing, and the tiny, crowded streets.
Pedestrians there really have to watch where they’re going, she said. Korean drivers there don’t yield to people like they do in the U.S.
And the men seemed pushy, she said, relating how she was almost mowed down by hurrying businessmen as she walked on the sidewalk. “That was difficult for a strong-willed young woman like me,” she said.
Caitlynn, who was a bit homesick during her first trip abroad, kept in touch with home via Skype. She also was comforted by the military presence that was obvious in the city of PyeongChang — particularly when she heard the news that North Korea was conducting missile tests.
Despite a few worries about world events, it was a great trip, the McMinnville teen said. She’s glad the summit and Special Olympics games were held in South Korea because it was really eye-opening.
Besides, the country was a perfect place for the winter sports contests. “It’s really cold there in February!” she said.