In a previous post I mentioned that my friends at Sports United, in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, had invited two dozen deaf student athletes from Samoa and other Pacific island countries to participate in a sports exchange program in Washington and New York City. The athletes have now returned to their home countries, and, from all I’ve seen and heard, the trip was a rousing success.
As you may recall, the four participants from Samoa were Seigafo Mavaega, Rosita Simone, Emo Lapi, and Ionatana Leutele, all students at Fa’atuatua Christian College and Senese Inclusive Education Services. They are highly accomplished athletes who were very much looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime. (Three of the four had not left Samoa or flown on a plane before.)
Our four Samoan friends and the other participants convened in Washington, the first stop on the trip. They received VIP treatment right from the start, welcomed by my senior colleague at the State Department, Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. She is a powerful, tireless voice of advocacy for persons with disabilities, and I was delighted that she was able to meet with our visiting athletes.
Judith previously served as the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development, as well as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education under President Clinton. In her current role, she helps coordinate U.S. global engagement on issues regarding disabilities and disability rights. With our athletes, she talked about her own life experiences and explained her advocacy work on behalf of disabled persons around the world.
While in DC, the athletes also visited Gallaudet University. Established in 1864 by charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet is the only university in the world specifically established for deaf and hard of hearing students. While at Gallaudet, the athletes did the school’s famous ropes course and attended a deaf rugby game at its Model Secondary School for the Deaf.
The group also visited Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington, and then traveled to Viriginia to George Mason University, to Maryland to the Maryland School for the Deaf, and to New York City to Lexington School for the Deaf (the largest school for deaf students in the State) and New York School for the Deaf (which has been teaching deaf students for 200 years).
During all of those school visits the athletes engaged with American students and teachers on leadership building, conflict resolution, and teamwork activities and games. It was a great platform for interacting with students from another part of the world, and for sharing cultural and social experiences with each other.
Of course, sports was a big part of the trip’s itinerary. In addition to playing matches and participating in other athletic events, the young visitors received high-level professional training. The visiting coaches completed special sessions on sports psychology, injury prevention, and disability and youth development. I’m told that all the participants enjoyed both the competition and the camaraderie built during the two weeks, and that the visiting athletes greatly impressed their American hosts.
All in all, it sounds as though the trip was a great success. This was the first of several exciting programs planned by Sports United this year to protect and promote development of persons with disabilities, and I’m pleased that we started with a Pacific delegation. Thank you to program manager Kelli Davis and my other colleagues at Sports United for their foresight and generosity, and for organizing such a great study tour.
As with any such program, the value was 360. The American hosts learned a great deal about our neighbors in the South Pacific. Our visiting athletes and coaches were exposed to training, education, and other opportunities offered to people with disabilities within the American system. I am certain that everyone involved came away with new ideas, new friends, and useful networks.
I am packing today to head up to Samoa to participate in Samoan Independence Day celebrations and to greet the 400 American sailors arriving in Apia on the U.S. Pearl Harbor to work on infrastructure and medical projects under the auspices of our Pacific Partnership 2013 mission. While in town, I hope to talk directly to the Samoan students and coaches about their trip to the United States.
In the meantime, congratulations to our Samoan athletes. Well done. Fa’amalō le tausiniō.