Exchanging ideas in Peru through sports

Faculty, students and alumni from East Carolina University traveled to Peru in March, embracing a unique opportunity to impact people with and without intellectual disabilities as part of the 2024 ECU and Special Olympics Unified Youth Exchange project.

Para swimmer Dunia Felices Rojas shares her story about losing four limbs as a teenager with ECU faculty and students.

The Peru trip during spring break was intended to share and exchange ideas on how to make sport more accessible in both countries. The insights from the youth leaders — curated by skilled adult mentors — resulted in hands-on learning and greater appreciation for learning from those from differing backgrounds.

“It was encouraging to watch various individuals’ days change for the better over the course of the exchange,” said Dr. Stacy Warner, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance and principal investigator for the exchange program grant. “From our first day watching Raleigh-Durham TSA agents high-five one of our very nervous first-time flyers to our last day in Peru, where we had a chance encounter with a swimmer with Down syndrome who noticed our group and gave us the biggest smile, handshake and hug, it was a very memorable and meaningful experience. I am grateful for this ECU HHP team and the Special Olympics staff for their efforts. An impact was made.”

Support in Peru came from Special Olympics International, the U.S. Embassy in Peru and Special Olympics North Carolina. The agenda focused on sports for social change, utilizing a mixture of interactive activities, talks from Peruvian sport leaders, connections with local organizations and reflection opportunities to nurture skill-building and cross-cultural dialogue.

Three of the emerging youth leaders were excited to experience their first flight. Upon arrival, the group was welcomed by the U.S. Embassy in Peru to tour the area, learn from a helpful health and safety presentation, and hear about services and programs offered by the U.S. Department of State.

Other highlights included:

  • A visit to Machu Picchu with a tour guide recommended by the U.S. Embassy. The group learned about the area’s history while embracing the scenic views.
  • A meeting with Dunia Felices Rojas, an awarded para swimmer and founder of Paramas, an association dedicated to delivering social change through parasports. Rojas’ inspiring story of learning to swim after losing four limbs at age 15 and insightful questions from the delegation cultivated a rich conversation on accessibility and determination.
  • Connecting with Colectivo Down Peru, an organization focused on the inclusion of people with Down syndrome in Peru. ECU’s representatives also participated in a basketball clinic rooted in the universal language of sports.
  • Learning about the work of Juega En Tu Barrio, an organization that brings together people of all abilities and ages to engage in recreational activities. The leadership team facilitated inclusive activities that promoted problem-solving and collaboration.

Members of ECU’s traveling party take a picture at Machu Picchu.

This experience was preceded by ECU’s student mentors and partnered Special Olympics athletes being honored in Minges Coliseum during an ECU women’s basketball game Jan. 20 to start the orientation phase of the exchange project. Youth leaders will remain connected via virtual connects and engage in preparation for the inbound segment to North Carolina and ECU in a few months.

The multidisciplinary aspect of the College of Health and Human Performance is represented in the faculty team of Drs. AJ An (expert in adapted sport), Eboni Baugh (cross-cultural coordinator and project evaluation specialist), Andrea Buenaño (project director in sport and experiential learning), Christine Habeeb (expert in sport psychology and unified sport), David Loy (director of ECU Design4Disability initiative) and Warner (director of ECU Sport and Community Development Lab).

Also part of the program are: Erik Martinez-Santoyo, who graduated with a degree in foreign languages and literatures with a concentration in Hispanic studies; ECU students Jacquelin Acuna Mendoza (recreational therapy major), Jillian Conroy (exercise physiology and Hispanic studies), Marcos Ardon Lobos (recreational therapy); and Special Olympics athletes Elijah White, Princess Bristow, Gabe McBride and Lana Foster.