Riverton duo, other youth, bring awareness of inclusion to state leadersMar 31, 2023 09:33AM ● By Julie Slama
Riverton High junior Lettie Hendricks and senior Marinn Cahoon 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)
Riverton High junior Lettie Hendricks talked to senators and representatives about being a unified sports athlete, where she is partnered with other high school students, playing together.
“Basketball is my favorite, but I’ve also done soccer and track for two years,” she said. “I like being part of my team. It’s fun and I can play. It gives me a chance.”
Her unified partner, senior Marinn Cahoon, broke into a smile.
“I love that she said that it gives her a chance,” she said. “She made it clear to them it gives her an opportunity, just like any high school student.”
The two Riverton students are part of Special Olympics Youth Activation Committee and participate in unified sports and were at the Utah State Capitol, meeting with legislators, sharing their stories and asking them to sign the pledge for inclusion.
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.
Earlier in the day, the Riverton 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.”
Cahoon said it was great to be acknowledged.
“Being applauded by the senate means they recognize the change we’re making, and they value it,” she said.
Hendricks agreed: “It meant a lot to me.”
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?”
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.
“I got to sit in the governor’s chair (in the Gold Room),” Hendricks said.
They also saw 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.”