Podcast S2. Ep 9: Inclusivity: Sparking Change Through Unified Sports - Zoie Breland

Character Strong · September 27, 2019

Zoie Breland is a Senior at Fife High School, in Fife, Washington, where she serves as the ASB president. She started a Special Olympics Unified Sports Program during her sophomore year at Fife High School, a program that has sparked the inclusion revolution within the Fife community. Fife is now being recognized by ESPN and Special Olympics as one of their top 5 National Banner Unified Schools. Zoie has committed her school life to helping create an inclusive school culture. She was an intern with Special Olympics Washington, and will be representing Washington State in China at the Special Olympics East Asia Leadership Summit. Zoie has a 4.0 GPA, plays 3 sports at Fife, and has plans to pursue a career in the medical field.

We talk with Zoie about how she started Unified sports at FIfe, the impact that Unified sports has had, and how this amazing journey started when she was in preschool.


“... I realized, in order to have an influence, I needed to be a good leader. I needed to listen, I needed to communicate, I needed to ask for help, so people could take ownership and get involved with it. So I did a lot of reaching out and being like, "Hey, I have this idea, what do you think of it?”

Zoie Breland

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Zoie Breland. Zoie is a senior at Fife High School, where she serves as the ASB student body president. She started a Special Olympics Unified Sports program during her sophomore year at Fife High School, a program that has sparked the inclusion revolution within the Fife community.
  • John: Fife has now been recognized by ESPN and Special Olympics as one of their top five national banner Unified Schools. Zoie has committed her school life to helping create an inclusive school culture. She was an intern with Special Olympics Washington and will be representing Washington State in China at the Special Olympics East Asia Leadership Summit. Zoie has a 4.0 GPA, plays three sports at Fife, and has plans to pursue a career in the medical field. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Zoie Breland.
  • John: All right. We are so excited today to have on the CharacterStrong Podcast and in-person, Zoie Breland. A senior at Fife High School, student body president, along with her principal, Mr. Brandon Bakke. So we got connected with you, because of something pretty, I'll call it amazing, because I think it's an example of the amazing love influence. Something that we teach about at CharacterStrong, that we talk about. We say it's the pinky wiggle, that we can't shake our pinkies without influencing the universe, right? Everything in there.
  • John: So, let's dig right into this. You had a dream while you're in school at some point. So I want you to talk to me about this dream that you had to make something become a reality in your school.
  • Zoie: Yeah, so when I was a sophomore at Fife, well, I'd heard about this program called Unified Sports. It's a component of Special Olympics that allows students with and without intellectual disabilities to play together on the same sports teams. I was like, "Whoa, that is awesome. I want to do that." So my sophomore year, I brought the idea to my ASB advisor, my leadership teacher at the time, and I was like, "Hey, can I do this?" He was like, "Yeah, that's awesome. Go for it."
  • Zoie: But at the time, I had no idea what that meant. I mean, I thought it was cool and I thought that a teacher would probably help me or take it on, but I really had no idea that it would turn into what it is today. So from that point, after he said, "Go for it," I did a bunch of research, I got in contact with the director of Unified Schools for their Special Olympics Washington. She helped me out a lot. I contacted other schools that had programs. The beginning, it was a lot of research.
  • John: That's great. So this is big, because I know a lot of people who come up with like, "Hey, I'd like to make this happen," right? It's a whole nother thing to make happen. So I just want to put a spotlight on, I had this great idea, but at first I was realizing how much work that's going to be, and then actually making it happen, on top of probably all sorts of other things that you had going in your life, right?
  • Zoie: Right, yeah.
  • John: So the research, the reaching out, the figuring out, right? So how has that then played out? You did all this research and then talk to me about what then has happened since that time.
  • Zoie: Well, at the time I was 15. So when I went to the administrators and the teachers at my school, they didn't really know me, I didn't have a relationship with them at the time. So I was like, "I need to get them to buy into this." I mean, at the time I didn't have an influence. I was just a sophomore, I was 15 years old. So how do I get an influence? So with content, seeing the director of Unified Schools for Special Olympics Washington, I asked if she would come and meet with our staff, so that they could hear it from her, from an adult.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: Then after they heard it from her, they were super excited. They recognized how amazing this program was and they were on board. Then from my students, my peers, trying to get them on board, again, I was just a sophomore, I didn't have a lot of influence. So I realized, in order to have an influence, I needed to be a good leader. I needed to listen, I needed to communicate, I needed to ask for help, so people could take ownership and get involved with it. So I did a lot of reaching out and being like, "Hey, I have this idea, what do you think of it?"
  • Zoie: I might have already had an idea of, I might have already known what I wanted to do, but just getting those other people to feel like they're a part of it. They got excited about it, they were proud that they could be a part of something as cool as Unified, and then they spread the idea. They're like, "Hey, this is awesome. I get to be a part of this. Let me go tell my mom, let me go tell my dad, let me go tell my teachers, my friends." Then once that influence started to spread, it grew very fast.
  • John: Cool. Yeah, I love the quote. I think it's Dale Carnegie that says, "People support a world that they help to build or create," right?
  • Zoie: Right, yeah.
  • John: So, what a great move of saying, one, can you help me? What do you think? Because the more ownership that people have, the more they want to be a part of that, right?
  • Zoie: Right.
  • John: So then let's go even to the next step. So what has that now, you get this up and going, you get buy-in, people are part of it. This has turned into what? You've got teams, you've got events. Give me a little bit of, if people are not as familiar, what is the Unified Sports? What's happening?
  • Zoie: So at Fife, we have a period called our flex period. So, Tuesdays through Fridays between second and third period, we have 40 minutes of time. So students who are failing classes, they are required to go and get help in those classes, so they can get their grades up. But kids who are not failing classes, they have the opportunity to choose where they want to go. So we use that time to have Unified meetings or practices, and a lot of it's in our small gym.
  • Zoie: So, the first Unified sport that we did was basketball. So we practice every Wednesday and Friday in the small gym. Then we had games on Saturdays and the season was January, February and March. So, we were able to use that flex time and get all of our athletes and all of our partners involved.
  • John: That's great.
  • Zoie: Yeah.
  • John: So students could choose to come and to support that, because Unified Sports is, everybody's a part of this game that's happening, right? So you'd practice, did it turn into a big event? And what does that look like?
  • Zoie: So my sophomore year, we had our practices, not as often as we do now, but we started getting more and more people involved. It's like, "Okay, if we want to play sports, we need to raise money. So how are we going to do that?"
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: So, I heard that other schools had an event called Pack the Stands, where it was like an intermural basketball game on their home court, after school. It was a fundraiser, so $5 to get in. So at that event, my sophomore year, we actually raised $1,500.
  • John: Wow.
  • Zoie: At half time, we talked a little bit about what Unified was and we're like, "Hey, the goal of tonight is to fundraise, so that we can buy jerseys for next school year." So that was my sophomore year, we had that fundraiser. Then going into my junior year, we used that money to purchase basketball uniforms. So that my junior year, we competed in the Unified Basketball League.
  • John: Oh, wow.
  • Zoie: I have to say, reflecting on all of the things that have come from Unified, I think the day that we got our jerseys has been my favorite day.
  • John: That's cool to hear that.
  • Zoie: Because our athletes up to that point, I mean, they had never had the opportunity to be on a team, they've never had that. So when they put on their jerseys, the looks on their faces and the joy, it was incredible. I mean, for me, it was a very proud moment, because I had put in so much work up to that point. Then to see it all pay off, that work meant nothing. I mean, it was nothing I could do. I would do it a million times over again for that time.
  • John: That's awesome.
  • Zoie: It was amazing.
  • John: That's super powerful. So these events have happened, you continued to build it, and because of that, people have been paying attention.
  • Zoie: Yes.
  •  
  • John: Before we go even beyond your school, talk to me a little bit about the impact, the value of putting a focus, giving people an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than them, right? That is bringing an inclusive community together, right? That we're all a part of this, right? Where these things are happening. What is some of the impact that you've seen on your school, from both the school-wide to the individual level? People who may be like, I never thought that they would get involved, and they're showing up, right, to help.
  • Zoie: Yeah, that's a really good question. One of the first things that I learned when I was doing research about Unified, was it's about looking for people's abilities, not just their disabilities. So, I mean, obviously we have our students with intellectual disabilities, and too often, people, the first thing they see is, "Oh, they have an intellectual disability. Oh, I don't think they can do this. I'm not going to even give them an opportunity, because, oh, they have an intellectual disability."
  • Zoie: So from Unified, they have the opportunity to get involved. Everybody has a different skill, whether it's shooting, dribbling, running down the court. Then some people, they do have things they aren't very good at. So on our basketball team, I'm not very good at dribbling, though one of our athletes, Cameron, he is amazing. He's going to get the rebound, he's going to dribble all the way down the court and he's going to find John, who another one of our athletes who's really good at shooting.

“...one of the biggest things is looking for abilities, rather than their disabilities. With Unified, it's not just students with intellectual disabilities, it's students without too, but it's also people of different ages, different races, different genders. We all get to come together and work together for a common goal... Within that, again, we're looking for each other's abilities, because we want to be successful together.”

Zoie Breland


  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: So we're able to use each other's abilities and find them, because we want to be successful. We're all trying to achieve a common goal.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: So, one of the biggest things is looking for abilities, rather than their disabilities. With Unified, it's not just students with intellectual disabilities, it's students without too, but it's also people of different ages, different races, different genders. We all get to come together and work together for a common goal.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: Within that, again, we're looking for each other's abilities, because we want to be successful together.
  • John: So the act of seeing good in other people and giving people the opportunity to see good, that act of intentionally bringing together that inclusiveness, right? That we are one. Has that played out and you've seen that in other areas of your school have an impact, right? Because of that focus.
  • Zoie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Totally, yeah. I mean, an example is, I know this is kind of a cliche, but seeing somebody sitting alone at lunch. Reaching out to that person and being like, okay, maybe they are having a bad day. I want to reach out. I want to get them involved and look for what they can do, not just the fact that they're sitting alone. Trying to reach out and help them in that way.
  • John: That's awesome. Well, let's then go to that next level, which is there's a big event coming up, right? In what, just next week, right?
  • Zoie: Next Wednesday, yeah.
  • John: So you've been recognized. So talk to me about this. Because of this focus, some other people have taken notice, right?
  • Zoie: Right.
  • John: Is it ESPN?
  • Zoie: Yep.
  • John: Right? So tell me a little bit about this recognition that has happened.
  • Zoie: So September, I think it was September 7th, ESPN and Special Olympics have a partnership, and they announced their top five Unified Champion Schools. So what that means is, in order to be a Unified Champion School, there is 10 pillars of excellence you have to achieve.
  • John: Yeah.
  • Zoie: Some of those, for example, are inclusive youth leadership. So for our club, we have co-officer positions. So I'm a co-president with our athlete, Lexi. So together, we have that inclusive youth leadership offering at least two Unified Sports. We have soccer and basketball having a school-wide activity. So we did a Unified prom, and then there's others too. But so in order to qualify for that, we had to have those 10 pillars.
  • Zoie: Then on a state level, our state nominated us to be one of those Unified Youth Champion Schools. Then ESPN and Special Olympics together picked five out of the entire country-
  • John: Wow.
  • Zoie: To be their top five Unified Champion Schools. They call it of the most inclusive places.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: So, I mean, Unified has just been the spark for us.
  • John: Yeah.
  • Zoie: Inclusion started there, but people started seeing how much of an impact that can make and they applied it to other things.
  • John: Very, yeah.
  • Zoie: So the culture of our school has changed with the inclusiveness that Unified has showed.
  • John: Yep. So two things, because there's a couple of things I really want to make sure that we hit before the end. But one, we're talking top five, this is even colleges.
  • Zoie: Oh, yeah.
  • John: I remember seeing the list, and one of them was Colorado College or something, right?
  • Zoie: Yeah. Yes, it does include colleges too. So that was really cool, because originally for me, I didn't realize that.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: To see that, I mean, it's not like competing, but there's a bigger group that could have been selected. So that was extra special to see.
  • John: So here we are, top five, little Fife Washington, and ESPN's coming out next week.
  • Zoie: Yeah. So next week, ESPN and Special Olympics are coming. They are going to present us with their national banner, recognizing that we are Unified Champion School that has hit those 10 pillars of excellence. At the assembly, our Unified basketball team's going to do a little scrimmage, we have some really cool people coming to speak. There's a couple of other performances, but I'm really looking forward to that. It's really extra special too, because our community has rallied around it.
  • John: Yeah.
  • Zoie: So, I mean, that impact of Unified-
  • John: What happens when we get the community to rally around something that's bigger than them.
  • Zoie: It's amazing.
  • John: It's a powerful thing.
  • Zoie: All the people that have reached out and been like, "Wow, this is awesome. You've inspired me. This program is inspiring."
  • John: Yep, and influence and all of that.
  • Zoie: Yeah.
  • John: Before I go to that last point, you're also getting a chance, am I correct, to travel, right? You've been invited to speak where, on behalf?
  • Zoie: Beijing, China. So Special Olympics East Asia is putting on a Unified Youth Leadership Summit in Beijing in November and they're doing an exchange program. So they picked five Unified partners, which means a partner and an athlete. A partner is a student without an intellectual disability and an athlete is a student with an intellectual disability. So they're sending five Unified partners from the United States to that conference and we get to participate, and we also get to speak about what we are doing in the programs within our areas.
  • John: Okay. Can we just sit with that for a half second and bring it all the way back to the beginning, that you had a dream that you wanted to make a difference.
  • Zoie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
  • John: Who, as it kind of chokes me up, but who, where was that instilled in you?
  • Zoie: Well, when I was in preschool, it was preschool or kindergarten, one of the two, I was in an inclusive classroom. So, I was in a classroom with other students that had intellectual disabilities and I was in that class to be a role model to them. So at the time, I really didn't realize it. We were all together, we were all the same, I was a kid. I didn't look for what they couldn't do or that they were different, we were all kids trying to have fun.
  • John: Yep.
  • Zoie: Ever since then, people with intellectual disabilities have just been part of my life. They've been my friends, I've tried to include them. So I've always just had kind of a passion for this. Then when I heard about Unified, I mean, I already had that passion for working with people with intellectual disabilities, but I was like, "Whoa, we have to have this." So it started a long time ago.
  • John: Going all the way back to preschool-
  • Zoie: Yep.
  • John: Where someone, in an intentional way, was creating opportunities for all students, right? To be interacting with each other in an inclusive environment. Here you are in a place, where that seed that would already been planted, was able to be on display. Now look at the number of lives that are being influenced. Now this story will go out to thousands from this podcast. So I just want to say good for you.
  • Zoie: Thank you.
  • John: Kudos to you for putting your vision into actual reality, that probably along the way had many different roadblocks and things that you had to, right? But the question I would ask is, was it worth it?
  • Zoie: 100%.
  • John: Yep. That's what always happens when it's a part of bigger than you.
  • Zoie: Yeah.
  • John: So, I know you have a proud principal next to you as well. Anything that you want to end with, Mr. Bakke, as your student body president is here talking about this dream becoming a reality?
  • Brandon: Yeah. Well, we just appreciate the platform, John, that you're given us. But I think the leadership lesson for me is just the reminder that when your students have a dream, to fan that flame, light that dream on fire and just simply ask, how can I help? Because you never know where that's going to go. The real story for Fife High School is seeing students whose hearts maybe were hardened at one point, who might've picked on some people. Then seeing them a couple of years later, be the ones who have transformed their hearts, because Unified has allowed us to practice empathy on a very real level and acceptance. We're just so proud of Zoie and all of our students who have gotten on board with that.
  • John: Yeah, so real quick. Is this eventually going to be coming out, people can look for this on ESPN? Is it going to be happening?
  • Brandon: Yeah, so Wednesday next week, so in a couple of days, I think after this podcast comes out, they're coming to our school, they're going to film it. Then they'll post it on one of ESPN's platforms here at some point, kind of a summary of that day with us. So we're really looking forward to seeing them next week.
  • John: Well, let us know, so that we can help push it out. Zoie Breland, Mr. Brandon Bakke, thank you for the work you're doing. We're excited for the inclusive environment that Fife has created, as an example for us all. Thanks for being with us today.
  • Zoie: Thank you.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com.
  • John: Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.