CODY — Brindi Brittain and Adrian Wood first met in middle school, but it wasn’t until early in high school they became fast friends during choir class.
The pair’s bond has continued to grow during their years at Cody High School, and in spring 2022, they embarked on a new experience together when they were selected to be Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassadors.
The first chosen from Wyoming, Brittain, 19, and Wood, 17, are part of a group of 30 youth leaders with and without intellectual disabilities who are striving to make America a more inclusive place. The leaders act as advocates, share stories and demonstrate the values of inclusive youth leadership across the country.
“Brindi and Adrian are excellent ambassadors for so many reasons,” said Cody Special Olympics coach Sarah Call. “They are responsible and tackle every assignment, meeting and speaking engagement with enthusiasm. They get along with everyone they meet and know how to have fun. They are kind, compassionate and awesome travelers. They are passionate about Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools and they continue to grow as leaders of the Unified Generation.”
For years, Cody has been a leader in the state at promoting inclusion. CHS was the first in Wyoming to become a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, which means it’s an inclusive school climate with a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.
CHS first received the honor in 2019, meeting the 10 standards to be recognized. Since then, Cody Middle School has also received the honor, followed by Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne. Cody offers a variety of unified sports like bowling, cross-country skiing, basketball, track, swimming and soccer.
“I think we got pretty lucky with the people in our community,” Wood said. “We got a good batch of people who are willing to put the effort into Special Olympics and willing to see the change in schools and communities. And then also people willing to hear this and to learn from what Special Olympics can do.”
The duo are leaders in CHS’ Project Unify, holding monthly meetings that bring together students with and without intellectual disabilities for lunch and an activity. Brittain’s freshman year, there were 15 students in attendance. Four years later during the first meeting this fall, more than 60 showed up.
“We started small and now the middle school is doing it,” Wood said. “Maybe eventually elementary students will do it. It'll be throughout Cody. It's just become part of the culture.”
As a Unified Champion School, Cody receives notifications about opportunities for students. Brittain and Wood met the qualifications for the Youth Ambassador program, including interest in disability inclusion, prior experience with Special Olympics and/or unified sports and a commitment to learning and growing as leaders.
“I really liked the idea of youth leadership,” Wood said. “And I think that it should be a little bit more available to youth. I also love Special Olympics and I love getting the opportunity to inform other people about Special Olympics.”
Brittain got involved in Special Olympics when she was in kindergarten. She competed in basketball that first year and eventually participated in bowling, track and field, and swimming. She has a binder full of medals she’s won through the years.
Wood learned about Special Olympics when she was in second grade through her dad, who took her to volunteer for the local games.
“I thought he said THE Olympics,” she said. “Second-grade me was disappointed when Michael Phelps was nowhere to be seen, but I fell I love with Special Olympics from there.”
Wood swam for the CHS team while also participating in unified swimming. She said she attempted bowling, filling in for someone during the Fall State Games in Casper in October.
“I tried bowling, but I wouldn't really call it bowling,” Wood said. “Brindi is the athlete. I'm just her sidekick.”
During their ambassador interview, Wood and Brittain weren’t sure about their chances of being selected, but said they went in with the idea that it was an opportunity to talk about Special Olympics with professionals in the Special Olympics world. It wasn’t long after that they received an email saying they had been selected.
“I was pretty surprised,” Wood said, while Brittain’s first thought was, “Yes, more traveling.”
Off and running
The duo had to start their work right away, meeting monthly over Zoom with the other Youth Ambassadors from around the nation.
“We got to know each other,” Brittain said. “That was my favorite part.”
They spent last year focused on learning their roles, doing monthly assignments and talking to the other youth leaders. The pair also did some training in Washington, D.C., learning from the second-year ambassadors in the program. Later they traveled to New Mexico and helped host that state’s first youth summit — a leadership conference for youth leaders.
“We were starting to practice implementing inclusion in our little community and in our school,” Wood said. “We took a lot of leads for Project Unified the Jackalope Jump (a fundraiser for Special Olympics). We also had our first inclusion week at the school.
“The second year is the bigger stuff where you can spread out to bigger things.”
That includes traveling around the state introducing others to Special Olympics and what it's about. This fall, Brittain and Wood spoke in Douglas during the Wyoming Law Enforcement Torch Run, a Special Olympics Wyoming fundraiser.
“We talked about how they can be part of Special Olympics and be an athlete,” Brittain said.
They also presented to physical education teachers in Laramie about unified P.E., which Brittain said is one of her favorite classes.
“One of our goals this year is to spread the word about inclusion throughout other schools in the state,” Wood said. “Not all schools have unified sports and not all of them have unified P.E. classes like we do. But we talk about the positive effects you can see in students with and without disabilities. It’s really cool.”
And they recently made a return trip to Washington, D.C., this time to help train the new group of ambassadors.
Brittain and Wood have some trips scheduled for the spring as well. They’ll travel out of state in April to help put on another Youth Leadership Summit. And in June, they will help with the first National Youth Leadership Summit as they wrap up their term. Locations for both events have yet to be determined.