MINNEOTA - Whoever coined the old adage "sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me" must never have been called names or been picked on as a child or young adult because words certainly can and do hurt.
For that reason, two area schools - Lakeview and Minneota - teamed up for a campaign to help eliminate the "R-word" as an exclusive, offensive and derogatory reference. A friendly rivalry is taking place this week between the two schools and communities to see how many people are willing to pledge to refrain from using the word "retarded" in their vocabulary.
"Everybody wins," co-organizer Kandy Stevens said. "It's not just about Lakeview or just about Minneota. It's about making a world where everyone is treated with respect."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
On Monday night in Minneota, Ross Abraham displayed his “Start with Respect, End the R-word” shirt at the first of two pledge nights scheduled this week between the Minneota and Lakeview schools and communities.
The campaign to "Spread the Word to End the Word" is an ongoing effort by Special Olympics, Best Buddies and supporters from around the world to raise awareness and initiate a positive change.
The first-time event sprang forth after Stevens, a Special Olympics cheer coach, was asked to head a T-shirt fundraiser in regards to the campaign. And while Stevens coordinated efforts on the Lakeview side, Ann Abraham helped out on the Minneota side.
"I was asked to head that, and I questioned whether there was ever a pledge night, where you talk about the words you use" she said. "Some of those words have the potential to hurt other people. So knowing that we have (Special Olympics) athletes from both schools, we decided to start a little healthy competition between the two of them."
Minneota was the first site to take part in the effort, taking pledges at the boys basketball game Monday night. Ross Abraham, a Special Olympics gold medalist, was there to inspire others to make good decisions.
"Everyone knows Ross," Minneota student Emily Gillingham said. "He's a nice kid. He's funny."
Gillingham was one of the many people who signed the pledge list and proudly displayed a sticker noting the effort.
"I signed to be nice," she said. "They've worked really hard, and we should be nice. Some of our friends did, and they said to go sign the pledge. I think it's a good idea."
Another Minneota student, Kyle Hennen, also pledged to advocate for people to stop using the "R-word" in a negative way.
"I kind of feel bad for people who have disabilities," he said. "I'm lucky that I was born without them. I know a few people with them, like Ross Abraham. He's got a lot of energy."
Hennen said he thought the effort was for a good cause.
"I know a lot of people who signed and have a sticker on," Hennen said. "I'll try to do my best not to use the R-word. I normally don't say that because you never know if the people around you will be hurt by it."
The first night was deemed a success by both coordinators.
"Ann texted me and said they were hyped," Stevens said. "They used up all eight of their pledge sheets, so that's 160 people who pledged to not use the R-word. For the first year, that is awesome."
Stevens said she was truly hoping that people of all ages would stop and take notice of what was taking place.
"People need to realize that it's not OK," she said. "And if we don't tell our kids, they won't know. Television doesn't stop and say we shouldn't use that word. But it's important to take responsibility for the words we use."
Some would also say it is important to practice what you preach, which is why Stevens is especially proud of her son Sawyer for being "a wonderful ambassador for Special Olympics." Sawyer Stevens, a junior at Lakeview, got involved in coaching Special Olympics flag football two years ago, when Minnesota first allowed participation.
"Somebody approached me about it and asked me to help," Sawyer Stevens said. "I really enjoy it, so I just stuck with it. We won first place in our division this year."
Most of the athletes on the team, which is also coached by Kim and Rod Abraham, are from Marshall, Minneota, Cottonwood and Tyler. The players are primarily between 10 and 13 years old.
"We got gold medals, and we also got the sportsmanship award, so they got to play at Winter Park with the Minnesota Vikings," Stevens said. "That was pretty intense stuff. They enjoyed that."
After working with kids on the team, Stevens said he believes that people with disabilities deserve everyone's respect.
"I feel like people, when they use it, don't understand what they're saying and how it can be offensive," he said. "This friendly rivalry isn't meant to call people out, it's just informing them about what this all means. They don't know what it might mean to some people. It's a great campaign."
Along with Ross Abraham, Lakeview student Cody Himley is on the Marshall area Special Olympics flag football team. As a representative of the team and area communities, Himley will likely be in attendance, wearing his gold medal and a smile, at the Lakeview-hosted pledge night Friday, when the Minneota and Lakeview girls battle on the court.
"Working with Special Olympics in general is a good learning experience for anyone," Stevens said. "Nobody in my direct family has special needs, but it gives you great respect for people who do and for people who give their time for events like this."
Kandy Stevens believes the campaign can be a positive tool to help people understand that differences are OK, that everyone deserves respect.
"Not everyone else sees how awesome a child is," she said. "So really, this is a story more about what our differences can teach us. If nothing else, we create awareness, that in this day and age, none of those words are OK. And nobody has a right to blow out someone else's candle to make theirs burn brighter."