Nairobi, Kenya — The parched earth made for a tough football pitch, but the youth of Loresho Primary school were determined. It was blue against yellow- two teams competing for the coveted prize of pride and victory.
In every way, this was the typical backdrop of a primary school. Pressed uniforms, dust rising from the running feet of an active student body, and the buzz of chatter among the hundreds of students present.
This was anything but the standard schoolyard football match, as could be seen from the profiles of guests who had come to witness it: Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, journalists from leading media organizations, Special Olympics Kenya and Lions Clubs International.
The latter two are civic organizations leading a crusade of support to communities throughout the country under the banner of a partnership titled "Mission: Inclusion."
What set this match apart had nothing to do with who was off the pitch, and everything to do with who was on it. Youth with intellectual disabilities, the most marginalized population subset across the world, teamed up with mainstream youth- among them the Lions Clubs International youth network Leos- to showcase the transformative power that a simple inclusive football match can have on the way in which people view 'ability', 'disability', and themselves.
The real score on the day was that of equality. Youth with and without intellectual disabilities teamed up to show a global group of civic, political, and industry leaders that social inclusion is indeed the future of the nation, the continent, and the world.
Special Olympics Kenya works to improve the lives people with disabilities through the power of sport- and a range of additional services that sport makes possible. The organization, whose patron is First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, provides free health screenings, education, early childhood development and self-advocacy training. It currently works with about 50,000 participating athletes across the country.
Lions Clubs International provides health benefits, family education seminars, and the grass-roots mobilization necessary to support a population largely invisible in developed and developing nations alike. Through their state of the art hospitals, community-based network of volunteers, youth leaders and more- Lions Clubs around the world make the impossible possible for a group very much on the margins.
In addition, and through the simple power of play, Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International are working in communities across the country to ensure that individuals with intellectual disabilities, namely children, have the social protection, health care, and access to education that every citizen is entitled.
At the recent Lions at the United Nations event in Nairobi, the partnership between Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International was highlighted as a strong example of the key role that civil society has in ensuring full achievement of the SDGs.
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya Siddharth Chatterjee said that the Mission: Inclusion campaign is in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It also reiterates that persons with disabilities should be seen not only as beneficiaries of support, but as an empowered and empowering source of social, cultural, political, and economic development.
With the recognized link between disability, social exclusion and poverty, development frameworks must mainstream disability if countries are to achieve the SDGs, he said
"The association of Lions with both the United Nations and Special Olympics ensures that we align our strategies to complement the SDGs, but still never lose sight of reaching the most vulnerable and marginalized population in our endeavors," remarked Lions Past International Director Dr Manoj Shah.
The Lions Clubs International youth network, Leos, play a significant role in the empowerment of youth with disabilities. Through their innovation, vision and enthusiasm, Leos are helping to change the narrative on disability, and are charting a new social dialogue on the role that youth play in transforming their communities- for youth of all abilities.
"The Leos- and the Lions Clubs International family- have a unique and growing role in the movement of Special Olympics," said Annemarie Hill, Senior Director of Global Development for Special Olympics. "Through their leadership and deep engagement, they are using the power of sport to bring a population long in the shadows of their communities into the spotlight - empowering them to be seen as they are- contributing to the national fabric."
As the blue and yellow teams gathered to be awarded their medals, an exuberance took over the pitch. In an age where individuals are categorized as winners and losers, the platform of "Mission: Inclusion" offered by Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International has positioned all youth- of all abilities- as the drivers of social change in their communities.
That is a victory for all of us.