In early February, Special Olympics athletes from across the country converged in Washington D.C. for the annual #SOHillDay, an initiative designed to advocate for continued federal funding.
Athletes from each U.S. state joined together with staff members, celebrity ambassadors and others to meet with respective local representatives and share the powerful impacts of Special Olympics. Currently, Special Olympics receives federal funding for the Unified Champion Schools Program and the Healthy Athletes Program.
Justin of Palo Alto represented Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) at #SOHillDay along with his mother and SONC staff member Sasha Trope, who is the Sr. Manager of Urban Schools & Youth Programs. Justin met with nine California congressmembers and senators and shared how Special Olympics has impacted his life and the lives of thousands of others across the region. In addition to sharing his story, Justin and Sasha presented Special Olympics’ national funding request and asked each office for their support.
“The experience at Capitol Hill Day was just incredible,” said Justin. “Meeting the representatives and their staff was fantastic and being able to share my story made me feel empowered. And seeing how receptive they were and how they were eager to continue providing support made me feel like my words had a real impact. In addition, being able to stay at such a nice hotel and meet athletes from around the country was amazing; everyone was so supportive.”
Justin prepared for #SOHillDay through multiple webinars and also on-site workshops in D.C. As a SONC Global Messenger, he has experience speaking to different audiences about inclusion and Special Olympics but received additional training and information for Hill Day – specifically about the Unified Champion Schools Program and Healthy Athletes Program.
“While I never had the opportunity to be involved in the Unified Champion Schools Program in public school, going around to the schools that have been part of it and giving speeches allowed me to see just how amazing it is,” said Justin. “I also learned a bit about the Inclusive Health programs, although I did participate in a Healthy Athletes program at one of the Spring Games, where I had my feet examined and I learned how cool it was that these screenings were done at no cost to the athletes.”
All of this training and preparation prepared Justin for his multiple meetings with California representatives – including a star-studded meeting with House Speaker and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi. In the meeting, Justin was joined by Special Olympics Chair Dr. Tim Shriver; actor ambassadors Maureen McCormick (“The Brady Bunch,” etc.) and John C. McGinley (“Scrubs,” etc.); and multiple staff members. Justin and McCormick even celebrated a successful meeting by joining together in a rendition of “Sunshine Day” from “The Brady Bunch.”
#SOHillDay plays a critical role in raising both funds and awareness for Special Olympics. In April, SONC will team up with Special Olympics Southern California for an advocacy day in Sacramento in an annual effort to secure funding at the state level. Justin is grateful for the opportunity to have represented SONC and is a shining example of the successes that can be had if athletes are empowered to share their voice.
“This experience was super rewarding for me and it was a huge honor to have been asked to go and represent Special Olympics Northern California at the nation's capital,” said Justin. “If I get asked to go again, I will totally take it. Special Olympics has given me opportunities to participate in so many awesome experiences and this trip is among the top of my favorite experiences ever.”