Fremd grad expands his r-word campaign

 
Updated 5/17/2011 8:55 AM
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  • Courtesy Fremd High SchoolSoeren Palumbo, center, talks to students at Fremd High School in Palatine after his keynote speech at their first Operation Snowball event.

    Courtesy Fremd High SchoolSoeren Palumbo, center, talks to students at Fremd High School in Palatine after his keynote speech at their first Operation Snowball event.

  • Courtesy Soeren PalumboStudents rally for the most recent "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign at Notre Dame. Since Soeren Palumbo, at left on floor, started the campaign with Tim Shriver in 2009, they have drawn more than 10 million pledges worldwide.

    Courtesy Soeren PalumboStudents rally for the most recent "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign at Notre Dame. Since Soeren Palumbo, at left on floor, started the campaign with Tim Shriver in 2009, they have drawn more than 10 million pledges worldwide.

  • Soeren Palumbo

    Soeren Palumbo

Last month, Soeren Palumbo of Palatine returned to Fremd High School to deliver one of the keynote addresses at its first Operation Snowball event.

"He was the highlight of the day," says Fremd guidance counselor Tony Tosh. "He spoke for one hour, and he had a remarkable impact on virtually every student there."

In accepting the invitation, Palumbo returned to the place where it all began. Where he first put the world on notice.

Four years ago, he delivered a speech to his Fremd classmates that had that same powerful effect, especially after it was posted on YouTube, where it went viral.

His topic? Condemning the r-word -- or retard -- and promoting that it be eliminated from social conversation.

"It destroys the dignity of our most innocent," he said. "It is the most hated word in our entire English language."

In the speech, he described his younger sister, Olivia, who has developmental disabilities. He described how her love for him is unconditional, and he wished his classmates could meet someone like her.

Palumbo made the speech during his senior year at Fremd, and today his commitment to persons with disabilities is as strong as ever.

On Sunday, Palumbo will graduate from the University of Notre Dame, with a triple major in English, Spanish and philosophy. Words and communication still resonate with him.

He has not been asked to speak during the graduation exercises, but his efforts at eliminating the r-word have exploded over his four years in South Bend.

Shortly after graduating from Fremd, Palumbo was invited by Special Olympics to speak at their International Youth Summit in Shanghai. The following summer, he worked at Special Olympics' headquarters in Washington, D.C.

There he met another college student, Tim Shriver, who is the grandson of the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Shriver, and son of its CEO, Timothy Shriver.

Together, Palumbo and Shriver started a college program intended to bring Special Olympics and its R-word campaign to university campuses worldwide. They called it, "Spread the Word to End the Word" and launched it in 2009.

"It's a year round effort that focuses much of its attention and resources on an annual day of awareness," Palumbo says.

For the last three years, Palumbo has helped to organize "End the R-Word" days on the campuses of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College. In March, they held their most successful drive, drawing more than 2,700 students to sign a pledge not to use the word.

Since its inception, the campaign has grown to involve more than 250 colleges and universities in this country, as well as in China, India, Malawi, Lebanon, South Africa and Honduras.

From their drives, the outreach has collected more than 200,000 pledges online -- at r-word.org -- and more than 10 million verbal and handwritten pledges around the world.

That's not all. Palumbo and Shriver also worked with activists around the country to remove the r-word from state and federal statues. Last October, "Rosa's Law" went into effect, removing the word "retard" from federal statues. Palumbo was with President Barack Obama when he signed it into law.

But Palumbo calls starting Special Olympics Notre Dame his "proudest achievement." The student organization aims to engage students in Special Olympic programming and its mission.

In its first year, the club drew students to serve as volunteers, supporters and coaches at Special Olympics events in South Bend. Last fall, they organized an inclusive soccer game, mixing Special Olympics athletes with Notre Dame students.

Palumbo heads to the University of Pennsylvania this fall, where he will pursue both an MBA and a law degree, but he pledges to stay vigilant in ending discrimination against those with disabilities.

"This year was a great opportunity to let the campaign transcend the one word, and address the bigger issue, which is bullying and stigmatization of the population with disabilities," he says. "The word is a symptom; we now have the scaffolding in place to address the deeper issue."