2014 NATIONAL WINNER

Maggie Leppert (Belle Meade, NJ)

Kaylee WalterThe national Lovin’ Award recipient is Maggie Leppert, 17, of Belle Meade N.J. Leppert was nominated for her profound commitment to social justice and inclusion, exemplified through her work as the founder of her schools’ Project UNIFY and for her role as an advocate of acceptance and dignity for her peers with intellectual disabilities. Project UNIFY is an education and sports based program focused on increasing athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities.

Leppert is also recognized as a respected counselor at Camp Shriver, an outdoor sports camp created to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. She has been assigned the most challenging athletes because of her exceptional gift for communicating with individuals with intellectual disabilities. For Leppert, spending time with the special education students isn’t service; it’s genuine friendship. She enjoys supporting them in Special Olympics competitions, just as they support her by coming to her theater performances. Leppert’s passion for helping others motivated her to learn sign language and to choose a career as a behavior therapist. Here’s what Maggie told us about her involvement:

"One day, three years ago, after volunteering at Camp Shriver, my brother and I took our friend Andrew out to pizza. When we brought Andrew home afterwards, Andrew’s mother told me how thankful she was that my brother and I had taken the time to hang out with her son, but expressed anxiety over what his life would be when he finished Camp. Andrew, though incredibly outgoing and social, never went out for anything other than Special Olympics or school. When I heard this, I was surprised; from the moment I met Andrew I adored him and I couldn’t believe that more people weren’t jumping at the chance to spend time with him. However, I knew that this was the truth because of one simple reason: there just weren’t any social opportunities available in our town for someone with Down Syndrome, like Andrew. At that moment, I decided that I had to do something to change this for Andrew and others like him.

With the cause of social inclusion in mind, I worked toward bringing programs which focused on creating a more open and accepting environment to my high school. Over the past three years, I co-founded the Project UNIFY® club, organized unified social events, conducted a Disability Awareness Fair and Spread the Word to End the Word® campaign, and joined the NJ State Youth Activation Committee—all with one goal in mind: spreading friendship. As a result of these programs, I am lucky enough to have witnessed social change in my school and community, as well as personal change within all the students involved. Though, at first, many of the regular education students were nervous, they quickly opened up to the special education students, and it was truly a gift to watch the everyone interact, laugh, and form friendships. One of my favorite memories occurred after our club’s first weekend bowling event. As the students left the bowling alley, they began calling after each other “Friend me on Facebook!” and “Text me!” All of the students were interacting as equals and, more importantly, as friends. Afterwards, the relationships extended outside of the club, with special and regular education students sharing lunch tables and seeing each other outside of school. I am so grateful for everyone I’ve met throughout these projects and I wouldn’t trade the world for the friends I’ve made. To me, spending time with the special education students isn’t service; it’s genuine friendship. I enjoy supporting them in Special Olympics competitions, just as they support me by coming to my theater performances. Infectious. Once more people publicly befriended their fellow students with special needs, other students followed along. Not only is the friendship contagious, but the joy it creates is as well.

Life-changing: In my high school, the special education students are largely isolated. With these new-found friendships, the special education students are becoming more accepted and respected by other students and I believe they feel more confident and safe in the school. Additionally, the regular education students have the opportunity to meet many of the amazing special education students that they otherwise may not have ever talked to. Personally, I have learned so much from the people I’ve met with Special Olympics and Project UNIFY® - from Andrew, I learned to always smile; from Michael, I learned to be kind to everyone; from Horace, I learned to forgive; from Matthew, I learned to only spread love; from Zac, I learned to never give up. I wouldn’t be the person I am right now if I had not had the chance to know these peoples, and I am so grateful to have them in my life.

Powerful: This year, our club is adopting the slogan “Friendship makes all the difference.” I truly believe in this cause because I have witnessed the power that friendship holds. Friendship has the power to break down boundaries, promote equality, end prejudices, and propel the acceptance movement" – Kaylee Walter

As the national award winner, Leppert will receive the following: engraved plaque; certificates for a one year supply of Lovin’ Scoopful ice cream; $100 gift card; opportunity to compose multiple blog postings throughout the year; letter of commendation from Maria Shriver; and a $500 donation for her chosen nonprofit organization.

2014 REGIONAL WINNER

Christopher Yao (Jericho, NY)

Christopher YaoChristopher Yao, 17, of Jericho, N.Y., was nominated for his dedication to helping children in developing countries who could not afford cleft surgeries, post-treatments, and therapies. Yao began Kids Change the World, a nonprofit organization to leverage the power of motivated young individuals to change the world for causes they cared about. His international program has spread to 34 countries around the world and is supported by thousands of dedicated volunteers and supporters. More information regarding kids change the world can be found at www.kidschangetheworld.org.

Diagnosed with an under-jaw bite when he began middle school, Christopher was terrified to learn that his speech would worsen and he would have trouble eating if his condition was not fixed. While researching his own condition online, he came across children with cleft lips. After learning more about these children who had a craniofacial deformity so much worse than his own did not have the money to receive the necessary corrective surgery, he knew he needed to do something.

As a 6th grader, Christopher went to schools, libraries, and civic organizations around his community to spread the word of the first annual summer Read-A-Thon in which he and students around the country raised funds for The Smile Train, a nonprofit organization that repairs clefts in 81 of the world’s poorest countries. After raising $1,000 that year (four times the original goal), he saw the power that young people had to change the world.

Realizing the power that young people had to change the world, Christopher founded Kids Change the World (www.kidschangetheworld.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to leveraging the power of young people to change the world. Through grassroots resources like websites, mentorship, and grants, Kids Change the World enables young people to take action in their communities and create their own charitable initiatives about causes they are passionate about.

Meanwhile, Christopher children’s surgeries. To date, Christopher has funded approximately 70 cleft surgeries for children in developing countries. These children who receive these cleft surgeries go from not being able to speak, talk, get a job, or even marry to being able to live productive and fulfilling lives—showing that they are just as capable as everyone else.

This past summer, Christopher was awarded a U.S. Department of State scholarship to study in in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. While he was there, Christopher had the opportunity to visit the Xi’an Jiao Tong University Stomological Hospital, a Smile Train partner hospital. And finally, after more than seven years of advocating on behalf of these children, Christopher was able see the fruits of his work and talk to the patients that have had their lives changed—from not being able to eat, speak, marry, or even have a job, to being a capable, productive human beings—due to Christopher’s efforts.

2014 REGIONAL WINNER

Michaela Morris (Seabrook Beach, NH)

Michaela MorrisMichaela Morris, 17, of Seabrook Beach, N.H., was nominated for her dedication to Special Olympics New Hampshire (SONH), where she served as an assistant for their swim team and has volunteered as a timer at various swim and track and field meets. Always pushing to increase her involvement with Special Olympics, Morris is working with staff members at SONH to establish a Young Athletes Program in her town this coming fall.

"When I was 12 years old, I volunteered at my first Special Olympics swim meet. From the second I walked in, I loved the atmosphere. The air was charged with excitement. I saw swimmers and volunteers, both with and without intellectual disabilities, just hanging out, playing cards, or playing Miss Mary Mack. Everyone seemed happy. When I was younger, I really struggled socially, so it was a really big deal to feel as included and accepted as I felt at that meet. Here, everyone was able to display their talents, personalities, and senses of humor. Everyone was accepted, and this universal acceptance created a happy, relaxed environment.

Since this first experience with Special Olympics, I have gotten more and more involved in programs that foster connections between individuals with and without disabilities. I think it's really important for everyone to feel included, and taking the time to help me school and community a more accepting place is extremely rewarding. At my high school, when I was a freshman, one of the girls I worked with at Special Olympics swimming suggested I come to a club she was in. The club was called Heartbreakers, and was an all-girls group where students from my high school and intellectually disabled women in the community come and make food, do various crafts, play games, and just hang out. When I walked in, I knew I had found something special.

I have been a regular at this club for the past 3 years. Last year, I was appointed Heartbreakers Club Head. I was really excited to run the club, and couldn't wait to begin meeting in the '13-'14 school year. However, halfway through the summer, I found out through a post on Facebook that our community partner, Friends In Action, had decided to cancel their backing of our club. Friends in Action provided the majority of our participant base, as well a large portion of our financial backing. After emailing my contact there, as well as our student activities director at Exeter, I found out that Heartbreakers would probably get cancelled. I was very upset. Heartbreakers had been one of the highlights of my Exeter career since 9th grade. After talking to my mom, however, I realized that the club could be saved. I emailed the student activities director and asked her if it would be possible to continue running the club without our community partner. I also contacted the heads of special ed departments in area-school districts to drum up participants. I created a flyer which I sent out to all the schools. My friend Victoria and I hand-wrote thank you notes and mailed them to all our participants last year. We found a club advisor, and drew up a schedule of activities for Heartbreakers '13-'14 year. After seeing how committed we were, the school agreed to let us run the club. In early October, we had our first meeting. A grand total of 40 or so girls showed up, with about 15 intellectually disabled individuals and 25 Exeter girls. We were really excited about the turn out, and thought everyone had a great time. About a month later, on a tough Tuesday night in the middle of finals week, Heartbreakers met for our karaoke night. At the end of the night, one of the quieter girls got up on stage and began to sing "Firework" by Katy Perry. This girl rarely talked during our meetings, and I was so happy to see her putting herself out there on stage. She gained more confidence as she sung, and by the end, everyone was clapping along and singing. As she got off the stage, she gave a quick curtsy. She looked literally glowing and was smiling ear-to-ear. It was really an amazing experience, to be in the room full of previously stressed out students, relaxed after an hour and a half of hanging out, and inspired by this girl's courage. I was really happy that Heartbreakers continued for reasons like this: for someone to feel accepted, and to continue inspiring other people.

This past spring, I involved Heartbreakers with the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. I planned a Spread the Word to End the Word day at my school, where I set up a booth with a poster for students to sign pledging to stop saying the r-word. To prepare for the booth, during one of the Heartbreakers club meetings, we created Spread the Word to End the Word buttons to give to anyone who pledged. Now a lot of kids at my school wear the buttons on their backpacks. It's really great to get my school involved with something that I am so passionate about.

When I came to high school as a freshman, I expected to find friends in the usual places -- in the cafeteria, on sports teams, and in my classes. However, some of my most rewarding relationships have been found in unusual places -- at Heartbreakers and with my Best Buddy, Nikki. When I first met Nikki, I was a little nervous. I didn't know if we would have things to talk about. Upon meeting Nikki, though, I realized I had no need to worry. We quickly bonded over a mutual love of Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt, Disney Movies, and going out to lunch at a local diner called Me & Ollies. Since then, we have enjoyed dozens of ice-cream cones, trips to the movies, or even just lunches in my school's cafeteria. Nikki's sunny personality and the hug she gives me every time we see each other make me really happy.

It is for these reasons that this year, when I came across an application to be a part of New Hampshires YAC, I filled it out without thinking. It is a chance to help people open their eyes to the world around them and enjoy the rewarding, inspiring experiences I have been a part of through Special Olympics, Best Buddies, and Heartbreakers." –Michaela Morris

2014 REGIONAL WINNER

Taylor Swarers (Orange, TX)

Taylor SwarersTaylor Swarers, 17, of Orange, Texas, was nominated for her many years of involvement with Project Unify Meet in the Middle Club, an initiative encouraging typically developing and special needs middle school students to develop greater understanding of and appreciation for each other. Swarers has attended conferences with Special Olympics, became certified as an aquatics coach, participated in Unified Track meets and Unified Bocce Tournaments, and been a fan in the stands for our Special Olympics athletes. Swarers has donated her time and energy to promote inclusion and respect for those without a voice.

"President Reagan once said, “Life begins when you begin to serve.” Through my life experiences I found this virtue to be true. I have been involved in sports, FFA, band, and other activities but have never felt as accomplished as I do when helping others. When my parents divorced my freshman year, neither my friends, the sports, nor my school work could keep my mind off of my chaotic life.

Luckily, I decided to volunteer in Mrs. Parker’s life skills class after seeing a school flyer. Their class was promoting to erase the ‘R word’ campaign or the Spread the Word to End the Word® campaign , and I felt it was a good cause. So I began spending my once lonely lunches in the busy life skills’ classroom creating posters, selling cookies, and playing games that included both disabled and nondisabled peers like cup stacking in the cafeteria to get the awareness out there. In this classroom, I built friendships and began helping others accomplish their goals instead of my own. That year congress dismissed the use of “mental retardation” to describe people with intellectual disabilities. I was hooked; I discovered a new me in the life skills class that year. I now am a certified special Olympic swim coach as well as volunteer at the track meets. I have become an active chairman with Project Unify. We have accomplished so much in the past three years in Mrs. Parker’s life skills class including being the only high school form the state of Texas to attend the big Maryland Project UNIFY® flag football tournament. Now that I am graduating, I will not forget all I have learned in high school. Yes I learned to read and write, but what I learned in that life skills classroom about helping others has taken me to a whole new level. I will continue my future assisting people with disabilities as a speech pathologist. So just as President Reagan, I will live my life to serve others." –Taylor Swarers

2014 REGIONAL WINNER

Lindsey Mendelsberg (Aurora, CO)

Lindsey MendelsbergLindsey Mendelsberg, 17, of Aurora, Colo., was nominated for her commitment to foster respect, dignity, and friendship between those with and without disabilities. Mendelsberg is Co-President of the GHS Project UNIFY Club, Global Messenger for Special Olympics CO and representative to Washington D.C., and an organizer of Spread the Word campaigns. She participates in UNIFIED basketball and track and wants to begin a UNIFIED volleyball team.

In addition to volunteering with the countless programs Miss Linda has mentioned, Lindsey has a unique story that she is much too humble to mention herself. School never seemed to come easy for Lindsey. Through her freshman year in high school she received poor grades. And struggled to make those. Two things changed her life dramatically. Toward the end of her freshman year of high school we had her tested. She was diagnosed with ADD. The second revelation was that she discovered the Individualized Learning Center (ILC) program at her high school and immediately fell in love with the kids and program. Lindsey has always had an affinity for kids with special needs.

Her life turned around immediately. She has spent the largest majority of her free time volunteering to help the ILC students. Most of her free (off) periods at school are spent in the ILC classrooms. She has coached the Unified basketball and track teams, and participated in numerous Special Olympics functions outside the school as well. This has provided her with a laser-like focus as to her path in life. Her career goal is to teach students with special needs. She sees so many wonderful things in each and every kid. She wants to have a role in helping others see those special qualities. The summer before her sophomore year, Lindsey started researching colleges with the best Special Education programs. She decided that she wants to attend the University of Kansas because of the stellar reputation of the Special Education Department. From that point on, Lindsey has been extremely focused and determined. Last summer she visited KU, toured the campus, and attended meetings with the Special Ed Department heads - not to mention added a plethora of KU t-shirts to her wardrobe.

We are proud to say that since her freshman year, her GPA has never dropped below a 3.0. Even better, it has improved each semester. Last semester she had a GPA of 3.7. Lindsey is entering her senior year this fall, and has all of the requirements to graduate early, but she is opting to finish out the entire school year so that she can remain in the ILC room with her kids.

She has worked very hard and overcome her own personal challenges so that she can follow her passion of spending everyday with kids with special needs.

"It’s impossible to be in a bad mood around them. They’re the happiest and most selfless people, and they change my life every day. I can’t imagine my life without them." –Lindsey Mendelsberg

The regional winners will each receive: a two-month supply of Lovin’ Scoopful ice cream; a feature on the Lovin’ Scoopful blog, Facebook and Twitter pages; a letter of commendation from Maria Shriver; the opportunity to compose a blog posting about their chosen nonprofit; and a $250 donation for their chosen nonprofit organization

Previous Year's Winners: