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Hays on the Hill: My 2023 Capitol Hill Day Experience

Written by: Adam Hays, Special Olympics Maryland

This year's Capitol Hill Day wasn't my first (I've been to eight others!), but it was our first in-person Hill Day in several years and I was so excited to be back! It was amazing to see so many of my favorite people in person and to meet so many new people.

Capitol Hill Day, the day that Special Olympics athletes visit our Members of Congress to advocate for their continued support of our work, is one of my favorite events all year. It is so important for athlete leaders to get the chance to speak directly to our representatives and senators about the important work that Special Olympics does, especially in health and education. I love getting to visit our Members of Congress and walking through the halls of the legislative buildings with all my fellow athletes from Maryland and from all over the country.

A group of Special Olympics athletes, Unified partners and staff members pose for a photo outside the US Capitol.
The Special Olympics Maryland delegation had an amazing time at Capitol Hill Day!

Like with sports training, you have to prepare for Capitol Hill Day, whether you're doing it for the first time or have been doing it for years! To prepare for Hill Day, I created bullet points of my health story to share with the legislators and practiced it several times. I wanted to be sure I knew exactly what I wanted to say during our meetings. I also ensured that I had enough signed athlete trading cards to give to those I talked to, and shined up my medal and pins to wear while walking into meetings.

Once we arrived in DC on Monday, we had extra preparation time thanks to the training sessions hosted by Special Olympics, Inc. We all attended a general session that went over Capitol Hill Day basics like how to get from meeting to meeting, what items we should leave with our Members of Congress and what to do in case we got a question we didn't know how to answer.

Then it was time for breakout sessions - which I loved! I attended a social media training, led by my friend and fellow Special Olympics Maryland athlete, RJ Nealon, from Special Olympics North America. He taught us the importance of using the hashtag #SOHillDay on our social posts and gave us tips on what kinds of things we should share on social media over the next few days. I'm a big fan of social media so this was a great session for me to attend!

A group of four Special Olympics athletes pose for a photo.
I really enjoyed facilitating discussions during one of the Capitol Hill Day prep sessions with (from left to right) Allen, Dustin and Haley.

I also co-led “Supporting and Managing Your Delegation” with Alyssa Cress from Special Olympics, Inc., where I helped lead discussions on how mentors can support athletes in their meetings during Capitol Hill Day. This included when I did some improv to help show what mentors should and should not do for their athletes during the meeting. Finally, I helped Dustin Plunkett, from Special Olympics Southern California, facilitate breakout groups during his “Writing Your Story, Pt. 3” session.

After some dinner and milkshakes, we all turned in early. It had been a busy but good day and we all needed our rest for a big day on Capitol Hill!

We were up bright and early on Tuesday morning to eat breakfast (the eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns were delicious!) before a full day of meetings. Special Olympics Maryland brought a large group of 20 people to DC so we split up into two teams to head to our meetings. My group included me, a Unified pair of students from Crofton High School, a parent, another Special Olympics athlete, and several staff members. It's important that we dress professionally on Capitol Hill and we always try to wear red so I had on my nice white shirt, Maryland flag bow tie (that I tied on my own the night before, that’s pretty huge!), black pants and my Special Olympics red pullover.  I added my gold medal from the 2022 Special Olympics North America Tennis Championships and was ready to go!

Our first meeting was with a staff member of Representative Dutch Ruppersberger's office.  I shared my health story in our presentation and talked about how I've become more physically fit through Special Olympics thanks to the hundreds of miles I bike every year (I average about 1,500 miles of riding every year). This and the five other sports I compete in have helped me to stay in great shape! I also shared how important it is to teach medical professionals how to have a better bedside manner and treat those with intellectual disabilities with more respect during their appointments.

During a break between meetings, we took a stroll in the United States Botanic Garden and hung out on the National Mall. Our next meeting was on the Senate side of the Capitol with the staff of Senator Chris Van Hollen. Halfway through our meeting, Senator Chris Van Hollen did a surprise walk-in and wanted to meet us and hear our stories. He told us that we had his full support again and thanked all of us for coming and then took a picture with us.

A group of Special Olympics athletes, Unified partners and staff pose for a photo with a Member of Congress.
We were so surprised when Senator Chris Van Hollen (back row, center) joined our meeting!

That evening, during the reception, I enjoyed seeing many friends from around the country again and those I know from SOI like Tim Shriver, Mary Davis, and several other staff members. It was so fun to hear stories from other delegations' meetings!

Capitol Hill Day is an important and impactful event that gives our athletes a voice to share why Special Olympics is important to them. It is amazing that people with intellectual disabilities get to be leaders creating change. I am thankful for the support our Members of Congress give to Special Olympics every year. If a Special Olympics athlete comes to a future Capitol Hill Day event, they will be a voice that “leads the way” for their fellow athletes bettering our movement and helping everyone come together as a “Unified Generation!”

If you would like to join us in encouraging our Members of Congress to support Special Olympics, you can contact them here.

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