No one should ever experience being bullied. It's a cowardly action that unfortunately occurs all too often in our schools. According to the National Education Association, it is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. I was one of those students being bullied. I would hear constant comments and snickers from students about my height. "Hey, you are taller than my dad and all dads! You are taller than the rest. Why are you so tall? Why aren't you normal?" Those comments bothered me, made me feel small -- made me wonder why I was different than everyone else. Why I was the one being picked on.
Then two things intervened: The game of basketball and most importantly, my older sister Lizzie, who was born without sight, without hearing and with autism and cerebral palsy. Although Lizzie and I could never talk through sight or hearing, we built our relationship through touch, smell and other sensations. Lizzie taught me so much without ever saying a word. Through her triumph over daily struggles, she taught me to be proud of my uniqueness. People will love me for my uniqueness. I should want to be different and distinct and I should even have compassion for the people who bully others -- they are always the ones who have insecurities themselves.
Lizzie gave me perspective and led me to appreciate my gifts of height, strength, determination, skill and talent, which combined with work ethic and opportunity, allowed me to pursue and thrive in a career in the WNBA. It's that success that has provided me a platform to help others. My relationship with Lizzie has inspired me to help create a more inclusive world for everyone -- a world in which no one is bullied. A world in which people who are different from each other including people with intellectual disabilities, are not only accepted for their differences, but celebrated for their uniqueness.
Because of Lizzie, I work tirelessly to promote inclusion and respect for all individuals, especially those with intellectual disabilities and use the power of basketball to inspire change. For the last two years, during my off-season, I have been hosting a basketball skills training camp for girls and this year, they include Special Olympics basketball players from the ages of 7 to 18 years old, with the goal to "Play Unified." "Playing Unified" is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to understanding, acceptance and friendship, breaking down the barriers that exist for people with intellectual disabilities.
Last year I hosted a camp in my home state of Delaware, but this year I am able to reach even more athletes and am traveling across the country with stops in California, Virginia, Delaware, Chicago and Pennsylvania. I have also been very deliberate in making sure my camps are a "safe" and inclusive space for athletes of any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Working with these young women has been a life-changing experience for me and I know a life-changing experience for them. These athletes are building friendships that will last a lifetime -- these women are learning skills in sport that will serve them in everything they do -- working together, listening to each other, embracing each other's differences. These women are breaking down barriers and are champions of change and real understanding.
This was perfectly illustrated at my camp this last weekend in California. Taylor, a standout player at Archbishop Mitty High School befriended a Special Olympics athlete named Sophia. Sophia had walked in the door not knowing anyone and I'm sure, was nervous about the experience. Taylor, the star who knew everyone, took it upon herself to make sure Sophia always felt included. They partnered on every drill and Taylor encouraged her throughout the day. They quickly developed a special bond and their energy became contagious. The other campers caught on fast and before long, the gym was buzzing with athletes cheering each other on.
Together, through unified play they created an atmosphere of acceptance and one where there was no fear of failure -- and no fear of being different. I walked away feeling so inspired about the impact the experience had, not just on an athlete like Sophia whose confidence has now grown, but on Taylor and her teammates. The leadership and kindness they demonstrated is what we need to make the world a better place for everyone.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Special Olympics in conjunction with National Bullying Prevention Month this October. To find out more about how Special Olympics is urging the world to #PlayUnified to stop bullying and support inclusion for all, please visit here. Read all posts in the series here.