The sounds of cheers and applause accompanied a procession of joggers carrying the Special Olympics torch on Merced County’s roads Wednesday, as members of several agencies came out to support the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
The run kicked off at 7 a.m. in UC Merced’s parking lot. The runners made stops at the Merced Police Department, the California Highway Patrol’s Merced Area Office and the Atwater Police Department before reaching their final destination, the Livingston Police Department, just before 11:30 a.m. Members of those agencies participated in the run, along with employees of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, Merced Fire Department, Merced County Probation Department and Riggs Ambulance.
In April, members of local law enforcement held a “Bagging 4 Bucks” fundraiser at the Merced Save Mart, where $1,553 was raised for Special Olympics, according to CHP spokesman Moises Onsurez. Those funds were used to register some of the runners who participated in Wednesday’s Torch Run.
Mark Heffner, 32, a Special Olympics gold medalist, enthusiastically carried the torch during much of the run Wednesday. Heffner won a gold medal while competing in golf during the Special Olympics in Beijing, China, in 2008. “I feel fabulous,” Heffner said.
Merced Fire Department Capt. Dwayne Young attended the run with his son Dallas, 18, who will be competing at the Summer Games of the Special Olympics of Northern California later this month at UC Davis. Young said Special Olympics raised more than $2 million two years ago at the UC Davis event.
The mission of the Northern California Special Olympics, according to the organization’s website, is to “provide athletic opportunities to children and adults with intellectual disabilities, instilling the confidence they need to succeed in life.”
“It’s amazing what that money does,” Young said. “There is no cost to our athletes. That is huge. The Olympic Village that is set up at UC Davis, it’s amazing. It’s an amazing experience for our athletes, and that’s funded largely by the Law Enforcement Torch Run.”
The run began in 1981 when Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon saw a need to raise awareness and funds for Special Olympic, according to the Special Olympics of Northern California’s website. He thought of the Torch Run as a way to involve local law enforcement with their communities and Special Olympics, by running the torch in intrastate relays that come together at their local Summer Games.
Law enforcement agencies in all states and more than 35 countries now participate in the Torch Run, generating more than $34 million annually for Special Olympics programs globally, according to the site. Since 1981, the Torch Run has raised more than $100 million globally.
Sgt. Jeff Godfrey of the UC Merced Police Department said the positive impact Special Olympics has upon the athletes is very worthwhile. “To be able to give back to these Special Olympic athletes, personally it’s very satisfying. It’s what I got into law enforcement for.”
Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez, who ran part of the route in the Livingston area, said participating in Special Olympics is always a heartwarming experience. “It’s great to raise funds for these athletes, and to have them involved in sports like this is tremendous,” he said.