Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) sent four delegates to Special Olympics Hill Day 2023 in Washington, DC, February 12-15, 2023.
Hill Day veteran, Dustin Plunkett, made his 18th appearance, joined by first-timers, Michael Leon (Glendale Athlete, Global Messenger, and LETR Athlete Liaison), SOSC Board Chair Richard Villa, and former SOSC staffer and current volunteer, Kim Villa.
Training began via zoom meetings weeks ahead of the trip and concluded on Monday, February 13, with a variety of sessions for attendees covering a variety of topics related to Hill Day and connecting with legislators on the state and federal levels. In one of the more popular sessions, SOSC’s Hill Day expert, Dustin, joined Special Olympics Northern CA and Nebraska representatives Ilisa Kessler and Evan Milburn as panelists for “Engaging Your State and Local Governments,” sharing the California chapters journey of navigating conversations with state legislators.
Athletes began preparation for Hill Day weeks in advance attending training sessions focused on telling their stories. Dustin Plunkett was a presenter for the final session of the three-part series “Athlete Leadership: Storytelling” where athletes got to practice their stories, receive peer feedback, hone their skills, and receive last minute tips. The athletes were well-prepared and, although their stories are diverse, the impact of those stories captivated everyone they met on the Hill.
Hill Day 2023 focused on funding requests for Healthcare Initiatives (Healthy Athletes) and Inclusion (Unified Champion Schools.) Tuesday, February 14, began bright and early with a bus full of excited Special Olympics representatives from across the US. Dustin, Michael, and the Villa’s were excited for visits with the Legislative Assistants of the following California Congress Members: Rep. Darrell Issa, Sen. Diane Feinstein, Rep. Paul Aguilar, Rep. Raul Ruiz, and Rep. Adam Schiff. During the meetings, each SOSC representative was able to share a piece of the SOSC story with the Legislative Assistants, some of whom were familiar with Special Olympics and had even volunteered at times, and others who knew less and were anxious to learn. Dustin was able to give a firsthand account of the impact Healthy Athletes had on his life and the lives of other athletes whose visit to Healthy Athletes made dramatic changes to their lives. Michael very eloquently shared his experience of not feeling like an integral part of the student body throughout his education to becoming included in activities like clubs, assemblies, and sports when his school, Crescenta Valley High School, became a Unified Champion School.
The SOSC delegates, the team from Special Olympics Northern California, and Special Olympics (SOI) Mary Davis teamed up for the meeting with Senator Diane Feinstein. Athletes Dustin, Michael, Dashiell (Northern CA), and Evan (Northern CA) shared their inspirational stories with Senator Feinstein’s legislative assistants. Unfortunately, the Senator was called to the floor for a vote that did not allow her to meet the delegation in person. It was clear that Senator Feinstein and her office staff are very familiar with and supportive of Special Olympics, especially in her home state.
After the Villa’s left, Michael and Dustin visited the Legislative Assistants of the following California Congress Members: Rep. Mike Levin, Rep. Sydney Kamlager Dove, Rep. Judy Chu, Rep. Kenneth Calvert, Rep. Nanette Barragan, and Rep. Luis Correa.
If that wasn’t enough, Dustin and Michael dropped off 10 more packages for Representatives not included on their interview list. They invited them to meet via Zoom.
Although the days were long during Hill Day, there was time for good food, socializing and seeing some DC sights. The foursome dined at Filomena Ristorante on Sunday evening while watching the first half of the Super Bowl on phones. Monday evening, Southern and Northern California shared a meal at Ted’s Bulletin, which included strategizing for the joint meeting with Senator Diane Feinstein. SOI hosted a reception for all Hill delegates on Tuesday evening, after which the SOSC and SO Northern CA crew headed to the National Mall for an evening tour of the monuments and a visit to Old Ebbitt Grill for oysters and a California celebration.
Michael Leon had this to say about his first visit to Washington, DC and Capitol Hill Day,
“Traveling to Washington DC for the 2023 Special Olympics Capitol Hill Day is something I will never forget. I really felt like each person we talked to truly listened to everything we had to say. I felt like they understood the difficulties and hardships people with Intellectual Disabilities experience throughout their lives, and how Special Olympics changes lives by not only giving people with I.D. a chance to compete in sports, but thrive in life throughout the communities we live in. Lastly, it was pretty cool having a chance for our Special Olympics SoCal and NorCal delegations being able to get together by going out to dinner and also being able to look at the monuments as well together!!”
The highlight of Dustin’s 18th trip was: “ After 18 trips to Washington DC, I finally got to visit the national monuments on the night tour. They were so much more impressive at night with the amazing lighting.”
SOSC depends on State and Federal funding to supplement programs offered free of charge to athletes. Every trip to Capitol Hill in DC or Sacramento in CA is a time to share the real-life stories of athletes and the ways the funding is impacting the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities, their families, and their communities.
“It was such an honor to be able to share the stories of our athletes with key figures in DC. Those we met with were so touched and inspired by Dustin and Michael and eager to convey those stories to the Congress Members they work with,” said Kim Villa.
Richard Villa said that the highlights of the trip for him were “seeing Dustin and Michael ‘work the room’ in each meeting. Kim and I were definitely riding their coattails. I also enjoyed meeting people from Special Olympics Chapters across the US, but especially our Northern California family: Ilisa, Laura, Evan, Kristen and Dashell.”
We would like to give special recognition to Amie Bisiup for managing the ever-changing list of meetings with the Senators and Representatives. Her contacts in DC and Sacramento are invaluable.
A hearty “well done” goes to the entire SOSC delegation and especially our two amazing athlete leaders who stole the show.
- Dustin because of his leadership in preparing our delegation and leading some of the training in DC. His story of screenings saving his life strongly supported our ask to continue growing our Health Initiatives. And after 18 years, he knows everyone who is anyone in DC.
- Michael because his story is so heartfelt and strongly supported our ask to continue funding the Unified Champions Schools Program. His story was compelling because we are having a positive impact on a generation of school students and their communities.