As the world navigated a global financial crisis in 2009, there was a global organization that was focused on addressing a most damaging, more profound crisis taking place in India and around the world.
Decades before when nobody understood the advent of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion platforms, Lions Club International sensed that inclusion was a contact sport. As the largest, most active and most inclusive service club organizations in the world, Lions Clubs International now approaches the theme of service, support and solidarity with great seriousness, boasting of a remarkable reach of more than 1,000,000 volunteers around the world in more than 200 nations.
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With government austerity measures implemented, increased market volatility and a growing sense of social uncertainty, this organization understood that while markets fluctuate, the ways in which we treat our fellow neighbors cannot. It went far deeper than that.
David S. Evangelista, Senior Advisor for International Development, Special Olympics, Inc. writes that the halls of an inner-city hotel in Kolkata, nestled within the bustle of one of the most emblematic cities across South Asia and the globe, a significant and pioneering innovation was brought to the community- one that now shows the brilliance, clairvoyance, and forward-thinking that comes when solidarity triumphs indifference.
What transpired in the small hotel hall in 2009 now represents a gigantic step forward for civil society, global development, government and most importantly, the lives of youth from all backgrounds, all livelihoods, all creeds and colors.
The Club also an organization that can speak to a longevity that most industry, academic, social and philanthropic entities long for- growing their impact and base in their 105th year of existence.
The Lions Clubs International team in India saw an opportunity to drive a new narrative of inclusion through service in a most distracted world in 2009- but as true leadership has exhibited throughout history- they were undeterred. They had teammates in this quest, the most unlikely of demographics taking their place alongside such pioneering leaders. Who were these partners in building a new platform for inclusion through sports and service, that has now spawned action and impact in all corners of the globe? The athletes of Special Olympics.
“We in Lions Clubs International of West Bengal saw that there was a growing need for community engagement of children and adults with intellectual disabilities,” said AP Singh, International Vice President of Lions Clubs International. “We also saw that through the unifying element of sport, we could not only serve, but forge something deeper, more sustainable, more impactful- and something that speaks to the general public: the thrill of sports.”
AP Singh, together with Past International Director and global inclusion champion Sangeeta Jatia, mobilized their community and signed a protocol agreement with Special Olympics Bharat, the largest disability sports federation across India, joining forces between the two groups to offer youth of all abilities the chance to play together, learn from one another, and show the word what togetherness really means.
This focus on inclusion through sports and service proved effective- and most inspiring. One can see the motivational and inspirational value that this vision has had through the ongoing and long standing inclusive sports collaboration between Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International in some 60 nations- which is still growing.
“As Lions Clubs members, we have an obligation to address needs wherever they are. We have a desire to ensure that service takes its rightful place in the minds of today’s youth, so that the future is one that includes helping one’s neighbor. Can there be anything more important than unity in a world so fractured?” said Sangeeta.
“The youth of today are calling out for new models, new narratives, and new approaches- and how proud we are, together with Special Olympics, that we can in part answer that call through the simple yet profound power of inclusive play. It’s wonderful!”
For over two decades, Lions Clubs International and the Lions Clubs International Foundation have served as one of the strongest global partners to the disability subset of individuals with intellectual disabilities – providing key health and vision services, family health support, early childhood development, refugee programming and more through a formidable global partnership. But it is the role of grass-roots inclusive sports that serves as a most exciting West Bengal legacy, brought forth by the simple belief of community service leaders that play can cure, that sports can heal and that if we can train and compete together, surely we can understand one another.
“One needs to only come into contact with a Special Olympics athlete to understand that they have so much to teach us- not only about themselves but most importantly, about ourselves, about the need for honest introspection. They bring out the best in us, and they move us to not only serve, but serve with vigor,” AP Singh noted.
“This is a population in great need around the world, but it is also a population that should be high demand. We as Lions Clubs members take tremendous pride in empowering these athletes, because in the end, they empower us to be the best versions of ourselves.”
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