On Monday, February 5 and Tuesday, February 6, students from Lenape Regional High School District’s Transition to Adult Program (TAP), Veronica Applebaum and Ciylen Bowman, accompanied by teacher Kate Maloney, and Unified partners Riley Fitzpatrick and Nicholas Ori, attended the annual Capitol Hill Day in Washington D.C. on behalf of Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ).

The delegation met with members and staff of New Jersey’s United States House of Representatives and Senate offices to share their experiences playing Unified Sports. Unified Sports programs allow people with and without intellectual disabilities to join together and compete on the same team. Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports is inspired by a simple principle; training and competing together create quick paths to friendships and understanding of each other.  The students shared stories of their experiences and relationships built throughout the seasons and school year. They also expressed the many benefits of playing Unified Sports on and off the court. The representatives were receptive, accommodating, and interested in the continued growth of the Unified Sports community.

SONJ asked members of the delegation to share some thoughts on their experience and what it meant to be a part of Capitol Hill Day:

“It was awesome to go to Washington D.C., everyone we met with really listened to me and made me feel happy.” – Veronica

Veronica Applebaum, SONJ Athlete

I went to Washington DC with Special Olympics to talk about playing Unified sports with Congressmen and women. It was awesome to go to Washington DC.  We went on a walk to see the White House,  World War II Memorial, and the Statue of Abraham Lincoln. We also went out to eat at a restaurant named TAP House. I picked the restaurant because my school is named TAP. I shared my stories about Special Olympics and playing Unified with them. I told them about our fans and how they make signs for all of the players. They cheer really loud when I score under the basket. They listened to me and made me feel happy. I would like to keep playing in the Special Olympics even after I graduate from school. The best part about being in Washington D.C was seeing the White House

I was honored to be a voice for all the athletes and Unified partners who know how important inclusion, acceptance, and friendship are between everyone. – Riley

Riley Fitzpatrick, SONJ Unified partner

I was honored to represent Unified Champion Schools to congressmen, women, and some senate members. Being able to advocate for those with intellectual disabilities was a dream come true. I have volunteered for Special Olympics New Jersey for as long as I can remember. Watching my cousin grow up without being able to be involved in athletics at school broke my heart. He always wondered why he could not play or why the team did not want him. Truth be told, they needed him. From his skills on the court to his competitive nature. When Unified Sports made it to my my school (thanks to my cousin Nick Ori and coach Kate Maloney) I was thrilled to join right away my freshman year. Seeing the friendships blossom and the inclusion in my school skyrocket was something I had always dreamed of. I never want a person with intellectual disabilities to ever have trouble joining a sport and getting involved in school again. Unified Champion Schools are the reason that inclusion and change is happening. So honestly, going to the Hill was extremely easy for me. I knew that something needed to change, more schools need to get involved and we need funding to make it happen. No one should ever have to feel the way people with intellectual disabilities did before schools became more inclusive. It meant the world to me that I could speak to representatives about why we need funding and how much it not only means to me but everyone.

Learning about what they do everyday for the people in New Jersey was inspiring. They listened to what we had to say and were very kind people, I think they will support Special Olympics in the future.” – Ciylen

Ciylen Bowman, SONJ Athlete

When I heard I got selected to represent Special Olympics New Jersey I was nervous and excited. I had a blast going to Washington D.C. for the first time. It was cool to see all of the different historical sites like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. When we went into the Capitol my mind was blown by how big it was. The Capitol had all sorts of statues and art. I thought it was pretty amazing. The following day was pretty cool also. We had 12 meetings during the day so we had to split up to make sure we could get to them all. The second meeting we went to was special. We met a woman named Gloria and she was a representative of Donald M. Payne Jr. She talked to us about her hobby of writing and that she writes books about disabilities to help people understand them. It was a great experience to have and to meet all the congressmen and women and their representatives and to learn all about what they do.

“It means so much to me that I could share my story with our Representatives and Senators.” – Nicholas

Nicholas Ori, SONJ Unified Partner

This was my third Hill Day, but the first one I could go and meet with the representatives and senators on the hill, as the other Hill Days I had attended were virtual. This was an amazing day and an incredible experience. Besides advocating for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, sharing this experience with my cousin and peers made this Hill Day special. Only five years ago, when Kate Maloney and I started our Unified Program at Cherokee High School, we had eight athletes and partners. We were also one of the only Unified Champion Schools in our area, causing us to travel to many of our games. Now, our program has over 20 athletes and partners, and every school in our district is a Unified Champion School. It’s amazing to see that students with intellectual disabilities can now be recognized as varsity athletes, just like their peers! Capitol Hill Day 2024 was most definitely a success!

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