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Millcreek Journal

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

Mar 30, 2023 03:55PM ● By Julie Slama

Skyline High senior Anna Davis and junior Penni Duzy 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)

Skyline High junior Penni Duzy enjoys competing in unified soccer, basketball and track.

“I like getting exercise and having fun,” she told state leaders when she recently visited the Utah State Capitol. “We help each other out. I like when everyone gets to play and cheering. Giving everyone on both teams high-fives is my favorite part.”

She and her partner-athlete senior Anna Davis were part of Special Olympics Youth Activation Committee and unified sports who met with senators and representatives telling their stories and asking them to sign the pledge for inclusion.

Skyline has had unified sports for two years although Davis said it was a scramble to make it happen this year when the former teacher who introduced it left the school.

“We had two teams our first year and it was an amazing experience to have opportunity for unified sports and have that positive environment in our school,” she said. “When it came time to begin this year, I became scared it wouldn’t happen.”

Davis took it upon herself to talk to the new special education teacher, the principal, the athletic director and others and took the initiative to find balls, put together practices times and teach skills at their workouts. She found partners who also wanted to be part of the program.

“It’s so important they belong to our community. We want people to know who they are, say hi in the hall, give them a fist bump, and make them feel important and included,” she said, adding that’s the message she wanted to share on capitol hill.

Earlier in the day, the Skyline 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 Abby Cox several times during the day. In the governor’s office, both the governor and first lady signed the pledge during Inclusion Week. 

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 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.”