This powerful event provided Unified youth leaders of the Special Olympics movement an opportunity to learn beneficial skills to mold a new world – all starting on their own school campuses. As an organization whose cornerstone is acceptance, inclusion and respect, our hope was to deliver a powerful discussion featuring a variety of diverse speakers who have challenged the status quo.
While this annual event is typically held in person, we were confident that a virtual platform would present new and exciting opportunities for all participants -– including hearing from engaging speakers across the globe, expanding our attendees to include all student leaders, and live streaming the conference to a broader community.
Our Summit Program
Sherry Wheelock is the President and CEO of Special Olympics Florida. The organization has seen significant expansion under her leadership, providing more services to athletes throughout Florida than ever before. Prior to her role as President and CEO, she was on the Special Olympics Florida Board of Directors for five years. Her commitment to the organization, its mission and its athletes is evident through her years of unwavering support and influential involvement.
Key Note Address
Shriver leads the Special Olympics International Board of Directors and
works to promote health, education, and a unified world alongside more
than 5 million Special Olympics athletes in over 190 countries. Having
joined Special Olympics in 1996, Shriver became a leading educator who
focuses on the social and emotional factors of learning. He co-founded
and currently chairs the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and
Emotional Learning (CASEL), the leading school reform organization in
the field of social and emotional learning. He is also a founder, member
and chairman for numerous organizational boards. Through his years of
work and dedication to education, he has truly demonstrated a lifelong
commitment to inclusion, respect and acceptance.
When Jodi DiPiazza was just nine years old, she wrote and performed a song “Heroes of Autism” for Toys R Us to be used in conjunction with a fundraiser for Autism Speaks. The campaign raised over $3,000,000. Then in 2012, DiPiazza performed a duet with Katy Perry on “The Night of Too Many Stars” at NYC’s Beacon Theatre. It was televised on Comedy Central and raised more than $4,000,000 for autism education. The performance received so much media and attention that DiPiazza has been featured in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, and television all over the world. Since 2015, she has won numerous awards, has been featured at charitable events and has even performed with other celebrities. Now, at 18 years old, she studies composition, piano, voice and music theory at Mannes College of Music Preparatory Division and the Newmark High School.
Panel Discussion: Sports Game Changers
Jason Jackson is a seasoned television host and courtside reporter, having been on-screen for over 29 years. He has won 20 Emmys and has reported for Miami HEAT, serving as a host in the FOX Sports Sun’s Emmy award-winning series, Inside the HEAT. In 2019, Jackson was named the 2019 National Association of Black Journalist Sports Task Force Journalist of the Year. His experience within the broadcasting world is extensive and impressive, but his accomplishments also extend beyond reporting. Jackson is the founder and chair of Jax Fam Foundation. It was established in 2016 with a mission of supporting, empowering and fundraising for organizations that are making a positive impact on health, education and/or social welfare of people who are underrepresented and under-resourced.
At just 18 years old, Caroline Marks has taken the surfing world by storm, already collecting an impressive list of record-breaking accolades under her belt. When she was 11, Marks became the youngest surfer ever chosen for the USA National Team. This is a trend that continued on, as she was the youngest to break many national records within the World Surf League and made history for years. In 2019, Marks had two Championship Tour Event wins, ultimately finishing the season ranked second in the world and earning a spot on the inaugural US Olympic Surf team.
Twan Russell, South Florida native and University of Miami alumni, played three seasons with the Miami Dolphins. His football career began in 1997 after he was drafted by the Washington Redskins. In 1999, Russell joined the Miami Dolphins. In 2003, he retired from the NFL as an Atlanta Falcon. Then, he began working with the Dolphins as the team's youth programs ambassador. He also created the Russell Education Foundation, Inc., an organization that aims to provide all young students with equal educational opportunities and resources through afterschool and summer learning services.
Ronald Lyons moved to Orlando, FL from Ft Valley, GA. He received a degree in Sport Management at Georgia Southern University. He started his professional career as Leagues, Junior Team Tennis, and Tennis on Campus Coordinator at USTA Florida. Currently, he serves as Diversity and Outreach Coordinator. His role focuses on overseeing diversity initiatives, adaptive tennis and wheelchair tennis for the USTA Florida tennis community.
Having overcome numerous obstacles herself, Minda Dentler has committed her life to inspiring people with and without disabilities to set and achieve goals. Her story is one that defines determination, courage and drive. Despite her legs being paralyzed from contracting polio as a baby in India, Dentler became the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October 2013. This accomplishment led her to be an ESPN ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Award Nominee for Best Female Athlete with a Disability.
Carson Pickett is a professional soccer player for Orlando Pride. She was born without a left forearm or hand, but that did not stop her from becoming strong on and off the soccer field. In high school, she helped lead her soccer team to three state championships. In 2012, she was named Florida’s Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year as well as the Florida Times-Union Coast Player of the Year. Pickett attended Florida State University where she played soccer as a defender. She then defended the school through their first NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship in 2014.
ESPN’s Jason Benetti talks with Professional Runner and Nike Motivational Speaker, Justin Gallegos
Jason Benetti has had an impressive and full career within his broadcasting roles at ESPN, Fox Sports and Time Warner. Currently, he is a television play-by-play announcer for the Chicago White Sox. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler, Benetti’s broadcasting career began in high school. He graduated from Syracuse University in 2005 and then graduated from Wake Forest School of Law in 2011. After law school, Benetti joined ESPN as a play-by-play commentator for college basketball, but soon became the voice behind so many other sporting events as well, including the college football games, lacrosse, baseball, NFL games and even high school football games.
Justin Gallegos is a professional runner with cerebral palsy. In June 2016, Justin won gold in the 400 meters in the Paralympics-Ambulatory division at the California State Track & Field Championships. He was featured by Runner’s World magazine as one of their 2017 Heroes of Running. Gallegos was also the first professional athlete with cerebral palsy to be signed by Nike. His growing success and skill through high school and college at the University of Oregon led him to becoming a professional runner.
Shawnee Thornton Hardy has worked with children and adults with autism and special needs for over 20 years as a certified and highly trained yoga therapist. She is the founder of Asanas for Autism and Special Needs and the founder/director of Yoga Therapy for Youth Certification Program. Although she works with a diverse group of clients, she has specialized in working with children and adults with significant cognitive and language delays, sensory processing deficits, as well as severe behavior challenges. Her goal is to bring the experience of yoga to all individuals no matter their differences or challenges. Hardy works to share her teachings with the world by leading several workshops, contributing to magazines and writing her book, Asanas for Autism and Special Needs – Yoga to Help Children with Their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness. She also creator of the C.A.L.M.M Yoga Toolkit.
WESH 2 News Anchor, Jim Payne discusses neurodiversity with IBM’s Paul Austin
Jim Payne has served as a member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Florida for more than a decade. He also helps fundraise for the Edgewood Children's Ranch in Orlando and raises money for Kids House, a nonprofit organization that assists victims of abuse, through his annual Jim Payne Fearless 5k for the Children. In 2000, Payne joined the WESH 2 News team. He is known as an experienced, award-winning journalist who believes in making a difference in his community. His reporting earned him many awards, including being named a member of Orlando’s Best TV News Team by Orlando Magazine.
Paul Austin has over 30 years of experience at IBM. He is the current manager of a team of software developers and a lifelong volunteer. This combination allows him to infiltrate his business skills into the community with ease. Inspired by the work of Specialisterne, Paul encouraged IBM to hire people with autism by promoting autism awareness and acceptance. He helped pioneer hiring pilots, and as a result, IBM has recently established an autism hiring program of its own.
WESH 2 News Anchor, Jim Payne sits down with Author of Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet
has served as a member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics
Florida for more than a decade. He also helps fundraise for the Edgewood
Children's Ranch in Orlando and raises money for Kids House, a
nonprofit organization that assists victims of abuse, through his annual
Jim Payne Fearless 5k for the Children. In 2000, Payne joined the WESH 2
News team. He is known as an experienced, award-winning journalist who
believes in making a difference in his community. His reporting earned
him many awards, including being named a member of Orlando’s Best TV
News Team by Orlando Magazine.
Daniel Tammet was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome in 2004. That same year, he garnered attention by reciting the mathematical constant Pi (3.141...) from memory to 22,514 decimal places in 5 hours and 9 minutes, without error, setting a European record. In 2005, Tammet began writing. His first book, “Born on A Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger's and an Extraordinary Mind,” was initially published in the UK in 2006 and became a Sunday Times bestseller. The US edition spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In 2008, the American Library Association named it a 'Best Book for Young Adults.’
Matthew Whitaker is celebrated as a musical prodigy, having opened for Stevie Wonder at just 10 years old. He has had years of music instruction, currently studying classical piano and drums at The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School, the United States’ only community music school for the blind and visually impaired in the US. Whitaker also attended the Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege Jazz Program and will be a sophomore at the Juilliard School this fall. In recent years, he was a headliner at many major venues and has appeared on numerous national television programs. His list of awards, recognition and accomplishments is extensive to say the least!
Panel Discussion: Organization Game Changers
Laurie Jennings’ has 30 years of experience as a TV news reporter and anchor. She earned six Emmys during that time. Jennings a host on numerous national TV shows, a news anchor in various cities, as well as a mentor and motivational speaker who has emceed hundreds of charity events. She recently launched her own media company, Laurie Jennings LIVE, which extends her voice and one-of-a-kind on-camera presence to companies and individuals wishing to revamp their brand or receive training from a highly experienced spokesperson.
Dawn A. Harris has dedicated her career to promoting diversity and inclusion. As NASCAR’s Managing Director, Diversity & Inclusion, she provides expertise for diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at increasing the awareness and exposure of NASCAR in diverse markets. Additionally, Harris is actively involved with the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, Daytona Beach Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the Diversity & Inclusion Sports Consortium and the 90.7 WMFE Community Advisory Board.
Robin Eletto a Special Olympics Florida Board Member and an extremely experienced human resources professional. She currently oversees Fanatics’ global human resources operations with a focus on talent engagement, recruiting, rewards and career development, among many other HR programs and initiatives. Eletto has been a huge supporter of sports as an avid co-ed softball player and a former soccer and baseball coach for her children. She is a diehard New York Giants, Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers fan.
RaShauna Hamilton grew up as the daughter of a two-time NCAA Division 1 National Championship college basketball coach. She went on to play college basketball at George Mason University, where she was a starter and team captain. Upon finishing college, Hamilton became involved with youth sports through camps and coaching. She received her Masters of Sport Leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University. Currently, she serves as the Senior Director of Community Relations and Youth Programs for the Miami Dolphins.
Faron Kelley has been a proud member of the Walt Disney Company since 1990. Over the years, his marketing career has shown significant growth within the company. Currently, he is the Vice President of ESPN Wide World of Sports, runDisney and Disney’s Water Parks at the Walt Disney World® Resort.
Athlete and Unified Partner
Loretta Claiborne is a proud Special Olympics athlete, world-class runner and highly gifted motivational speaker. She is a celebrated game changer, with a long list of awards, accomplishments and notable engagements. Throughout the course of her life, Claiborne has inspired so many people, truly impacting the lives of each individual she has met. By sharing her personal story with hundreds of thousands, she aims to promote hope and tolerance for people all over the world.
Tajha Illerant is an extremely active member in her school and community. As a Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassador, she participates in bowling, bocce and flag football. She is also a basketball team manager on the leadership team, the chair of Project Unify and a Global Messenger. Illerant is an influential advocate for inclusion and participates in the Unified Generation from Immokalee High School. Additionally, she received the 2019 Southwest Florida Special Olympics Female Athlete of the Year award.
Bailey Lemelin is 18 years old and attends Plant City High School. She is a member and officer of Plant City’s Champion Schools Special Olympics Club. Her leadership extends even further though her role as a member and committee chair for communication in Hillsborough County’s Athlete Input Council. Bailey has been involved in Special Olympics for the past nine years and active in Unified Sports for the past four. Currently, she participates in Unified cheerleading, gymnastics and swimming. In the past, she has participated in Unified track and field, as well as bowling.
Lauren Webster has been a strong leader in the Special Olympics Florida community at HB Plant High School. Not only is she a Unified partner, but she has been the Unified Club President for two years. She has played Unified basketball and coaches Unified flag football and soccer. Lauren’s passion for sports is evident from her unwavering commitment to her many Special Olympics Florida teams, as well as her three years on her high school varsity soccer team.
Joseph Justice has been a member of the Special Olympics Florida community for five years. He is a reliable teammate in numerous Unified sports at Seabreeze High School, including flag football, basketball, softball, tennis, bowling, bocce and cycling. He also plays varsity football, baseball and wrestling for his school.
Presentation: How to Become a Game Changer
Herley Pellew, Unified Champion Schools Manager, Special Olympics Florida
is the President and CEO of Special Olympics Florida. The organization
has seen significant expansion under her leadership, providing more
services to athletes throughout Florida than ever before. Prior to her
role as President and CEO, she was on the Special Olympics Florida Board
of Directors for five years. Her commitment to the organization, its
mission and its athletes is evident through her years of unwavering
support and influential involvement.