John Amara Walters had an ‘infectious laugh.’ Now his memory inspires interns

‘You can only wish as a parent that your child makes an impact,’ his mother says

John Amara Walters worked in Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office for several years, starting as an intern and rising to a legislative aide. The Maryland Democrat launched a new internship in his memory this year.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
John Amara Walters worked in Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office for several years, starting as an intern and rising to a legislative aide. The Maryland Democrat launched a new internship in his memory this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 31, 2022 at 5:15am

John Amara Walters’ desk was always the place to be in Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office suite. It was right by the water cooler, so staffers could gather and joke about the day.

More important, it was where they could spend time with John, a legislative aide adored by his colleagues for his empathy and positivity.

“Anybody that you talk to about John will talk about his laugh. He had this amazing, loud kind of a giggle of a laugh, which was really wonderful,” said legislative director Sarah Schenning, a longtime staffer. She remembers him starting as an intern back in 2015, when their boss was still a member of the House.

John was good at his job. He listened to constituents, really heard them. He was quick to understand the human cost of federal policies, like when postal delays stopped braille and audiobooks from reaching blind people.

In a floor speech last November, Van Hollen recalled the “twinkle in his eye, his enthusiasm for everything he did, his absolute brilliance, and his commitment to helping others.” 

From an early age, John dealt with sickle cell disease, a red blood cell disorder that can slow the flow of oxygen in the body. Appointments and transfusions were a fact of life, and the pain could be debilitating. But his family urged him not to give up on public service.

“You aren’t sickle cell,” his mother, Kimberley Davis, often told him. “You have gifts from God, you’re intelligent, you’re bright, you’re smart.” 

Walters, shown here in the Capitol complex when his boss was serving on the House side, died of complications of sickle cell disease at the age of 29. (Courtesy Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office)

Last fall, his condition worsened. John died of complications of sickle cell on Oct. 2 at the age of 29.

His loss was devastating for coworkers. John had grown into a mentor for more junior staffers in the office. The “kid brother” with a “baby face” that Schenning knew when he first came to work in Congress had become a big brother for others.

“It was shocking to us all to lose him, even knowing he had sickle cell, knowing how serious it is as a disease,” she said.

In a testament to the life he made in the nation’s capital, his family held two memorials — one in his home state of Michigan and one in Washington, where college friends and fellow staffers gathered at his alma mater, Howard University.

And his name won’t be forgotten anytime soon in Van Hollen’s office. To “honor who John was,” the senator launched the John Amara Walters Memorial Internship, a paid opportunity open twice a year to a Maryland resident attending Howard while studying psychology or political science. 

While always interested in politics, John majored in psychology and minored in political science because he was always trying to understand what motivated people, his mother said. 

Memorial internships are rare, according to Bradley Joseph Sinkaus, who studies how the Capitol works for the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation. “You’re honoring the life and legacy of someone, but you’re also honoring … the work of interns,” he said.

He can’t think of any others named after a Hill staffer, though Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts hosts the Fern Holland International Affairs Fellowship, named after a personal friend who was killed in the early days of the Iraq War.

The new internship also stands out because it forges a link between a Senate office and a historically Black university, an important recruiting step, advocates said. While Howard sits only two miles from the Capitol, it sends fewer interns to work there than other area universities, like Georgetown, American and George Washington, according to an analysis by Pay Our Interns. Congress needs to step up its outreach if it wants to look like the country it serves, said Habiba Mohamed, the group’s federal affairs manager.

Sickle cell disease disproportionately affects African Americans, occurring among 1 out of every 365 African American births. About 100,000 people in the United States have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After a few months on the job, Aniyah Reed can feel the power of John’s legacy. She never met him, but she’s trying to channel his love of public service. The Howard senior from Hyattsville, Maryland, started in January and is the first to hold the internship.

“John was one for smiling through all of it and continuing to work hard. So I think that’s what I think I’m going to continue to pursue,” Reed said.

It’s been a difficult time for historically Black colleges and universities, she emphasized, after a string of bomb threats at Howard and elsewhere this year. 

Davis said her son, who was an active member of the Congressional Black Associates, would be happy to see more students from his alma mater have a voice on the Hill.

“Every intern that is brought in is proof that yes, we can do this, too, just as John Amara was proof,” she said. “We as people of color need to be included in, need to bring our perspectives in, and need to bring our angles in.”

She imagines generations of interns moving up the ranks, embracing her son’s joyous approach to life and work that she could always hear in his “infectious laugh.” 

“You can only wish as a parent that your child makes an impact and makes a difference,” Davis said.