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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton duo, other youth, bring awareness of inclusion to state leaders

Mar 30, 2023 10:32AM ● By Julie Slama

Brighton High sophomores Mitchell Burt and Jack Peterson and other members of Special Olympics’ Youth Activation Committee met with Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox about the need for inclusion. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Brighton High sophomore Jack Peterson has a friend who’s brother has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

“His name is Dash, and he has powered through surgeries yet he’s still a fun kid, who likes sports and dancing,” Peterson said. “I saw him perform at halftime at a BYU football game. It was through him that I got involved in Special Olympics and YAC (Youth Activation Committee) and then, unified sports.”

Peterson was at the Utah State Capitol along with his unified sports partner sophomore Mitchell Burt meeting with Utah legislators. They were waiting to meet Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion to tell her their story and ask for her to sign the pledge for inclusion as they did for other house and senate leaders.

Bennion did one step more and invited Burt to sit on the house floor. 

The mostly non-verbal student had a grin that stretched from ear to ear. His mother, Jennie, was overjoyed.

“Being here, including these students, is so important,” she said. “Inclusion involves everyone and they’re here to share that. Special Olympics’ unified sports has given him the opportunity to be included, to be treated respectfully, to play on and be a part of a team, and to form friendships with other high school students that may not have happened otherwise.”

Earlier in the day, the Brighton pair, along with 18 other statewide YAC members, were recognized on the Senate floor as Sen. Kathleen Riebe introduced them and their mission. They were met with a standing ovation.

“It’s been awesome,” Unified Champion School’s College-growth Coordinator Boston Iacobazzi said, who advises Utah’s YAC high school students. “They have never felt they had a voice and now, they have.”

The group had a chance to talk with Gov. Spencer Cox and interacted with First Lady Abby Cox several times during the day. In the governor’s office, Peterson asked First Lady Abby Cox to sign during Inclusion Week. The governor also pledged.

“We’re taking little steps toward a more inclusive future,” Peterson said. “We’re wanting to be more welcoming and inclusive in all stages of life because it helps everybody.”

Iacobazzi said about 20 legislators signed the pledge of inclusion and even more became aware of Unified Champion Schools, which promotes a three-tier approach through unified sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

During their visit, the First Lady said it is through their leadership that will help define the state’s future.

“You are going to be the leaders in this state in just a few years and what kind of state do you want to see?” she asked. “Do you want to see a more inclusive state? Do you want to see a state where everyone feels a sense of love and belonging and that they can do what they want to do and they can be who they want to be?”

Abby Cox, who was a special education teacher, has Special Olympics Unified Sports as one of her pillars for her “Show Up” Initiatives.

“My heart is with the Special Olympics unified sports, and I will always be a champion for my friends who don’t have a voice, and I want you to be that too,” she said. “I want to do a special shout out to my athletes, for the work that you do in being able to show the world what it means to have ability. You have incredible abilities. Don’t ever let anybody tell that tell you that you don’t. To my partner athletes, you are making a huge difference in creating an inclusive environment, not only in your schools, but in your entire communities and in this state. You are being powerful leaders to be a voice for people that don’t always feel like they have a voice. I want you to recognize your power in that and continue to do what you’re doing and bring more along with you.”

Special Olympics Executive Committee Board Chair Michelle Wolfenbarger echoed those sentiments to the youth delegation.

“You’re all choosing to spend your time here and let your voices be heard and it will be heard; they are by far the most important voices out there,” she said. “There’s nothing like being here with you and seeing the future leaders of our country and our state and of our communities be here and want inclusion, want kindness and love and unity.”

During their visit, the group toured sights such as the Hall of Governors and Gold Room to behind-the-scenes places by taking spiral stairs or the governor’s elevator past the capitol printing press to the emergency operations center. There, Mike Mower, community outreach and intergovernmental affairs senior advisor for the governor, walked them through the coordination and cooperation of civic leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It took everyone working together to bring awareness and understanding in the decisions that were made,” he said. “That’s what you’re doing—bringing awareness and your voices, and that means so much here at the capitol.”