In the midst of a tumultuous political climate, Special Olympics programs from around the country have rallied together to get the attention of their local officials on both sides.
For the second time in the last three months, Special Olympics Southern California and Special Olympics Northern California representatives met with government officials to advocate for funding and awareness of programs, this time as part of Special Olympics Day earlier this week at the California State Capitol in Sacramento.
SOSC representatives included President/CEO Bill Shumard, Unified Champion Schools Director Melissa Erdmann, Manager of Grants and Government Relations Trang Nguyen, and athletes Dustin Plunkett, Debi Anderson and Joseph Gorin.
Assemblymembers, such as Tim Grayson (D-Concord), are asking the state to approve $3 million to be split evenly between the state’s two programs. The funding would help support Inclusive Health Programs and the Schools Program, which affects more than 27,000 students in 900 schools in Southern California.
“Meeting with your local representatives in person, at both the national and state levels, is a tremendous advantage in establishing a rapport of trust and respect,” Shumard said. “Having the opportunity to participate first-hand in the democratic process is a great privilege.
“There are no better ambassadors for our movement than the Special Olympics athletes themselves. Over the years, I’ve personally witnessed countless examples of emotional, first-hand stories being communicated as to how our athletes’ lives have been changed. These visits and stories have a tremendous effect on our elected officials and benefits our cause greatly.”
The continued push for awareness and inclusion comes on the heels of a proposed cut in federal funding that was ultimately overturned in late March.
In February, more than 250 delegates representing 44 states and the District of Columbia were present for the 17th annual Capitol Hill Day in Washington D.C., educating lawmakers in both the House and Senate in an effort to secure support and be champions of inclusion for a population of 6.5 million individuals with intellectual disabilities. Among those in attendance were Plunkett and Nguyen.
The pair met with Reps. Pete Aguilar, Nanette Barragán, Ken Calvert, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Bradley Sherman, Mark Takano, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
In addition to the face-to-face meetings with congressmembers, Plunkett led a public speaking workshop for Special Olympics athletes who learned how to tell their story. A polished speaker in his own right, Plunkett sees a value in the athletes’ voice and the difference it can make spreading awareness.
The idea, Plunkett said, is to educate lawmakers about “why we need the funding to help grow our programs and ask them for their support of the funding that we are lobbying to get.”
“It is very important to make sure that we have any athlete in the room because their story makes the biggest impact and leaves a lasting impression with the people that we meet,” Plunkett added.