By REID TUCKER
It’s a good thing the “Flame of Hope” carried by local law enforcement officers is a literal flame, because the Walton County leg of this year’s Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run fell on an unseasonably chilly, wet morning.
Still, the damp chill of Thursday, March 31, was not enough to deter the more than 30 officers who came out to raise awareness for the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games. Individuals representing the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, DeFuniak Springs Police Department, State Probation Office, State Prisons, the Walton County Jail, State Attorney’s Office, and the Florida Highway Patrol carried the Special Olympic torch 1.5 miles down U.S. 90 through downtown DeFuniak Springs, concluding the route at the steps of the Walton County Courthouse.
The Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) raises an average of $34 million worldwide for Special Olympics programs and more than 85,000 law enforcement officers from 35 countries participate each year. Annual torch relays similar to the Walton County run take place in 60 counties around Florida, with more than 3,000 members of 300 state and local law enforcement agencies volunteering to carry the flame of hope a combined distance of close to 1,500 miles. The 2011 Florida Torch relay began in Century and will end in Orlando on May 13 in time for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympic Florida State Games, held each year at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports.
LETR Regional Coordinator Julie Bowman said starting the relay in the Panhandle carries with it unique challenges, namely securing sponsorship, especially after last year’s BP oil spill combined with the nationwide recession to rock the Gulf Coast’s economy. However, the number of participants from law enforcement officers and Special Olympians is “greater than we ever hoped for,” she said. Though the purpose of the torch run is to raise awareness more than to raise money, but Bowman said both go a long way toward making sure as many athletes as possible get a chance to attend the state competition.
“The economic crunch has been really hard on the Panhandle but every year we get more and more support from our officers,” Bowman said. “If it wasn’t for what we do, there would be a lot of athletes who probably would not be able to attend Special Olympics.”
State Correctional Probation Specialist Eugene Mims, who headed up organization of the Walton County torch run, agreed with Bowman’s assessment. Though the LETR is supplemented by other nationwide fundraising initiatives and private donations, it remains the biggest grassroots-level means of raising money for Special Olympics athletic programs. Mims said the level of participation and cooperation between local law enforcement agencies does much to convey a sense of how important it is for the public to be aware of the achievements of Special Olympians within our communities.
“The torch run is the public awareness phase to show the support of the law enforcement community,” Mims said. “The whole purpose of the torch run is to give [the athletes] the opportunity to train year round. Because of the current economy, those resources may not be there for donations.”
Steven Lynn, one of DeFuniak Springs’ Special Olympians, was chosen among the 15 other athletes to carry the torch the final stage of the torch run. The 20-year-old said he works out all the time, even at home, where he uses an elliptical and uses a Bowflex when he can’t make it to the gym. Lynn said the run was “not too bad” after all the training he has been through.
“This was my first [torch run],” Lynn said. “It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.”
In spite of his training and competitive nature, Lynn said he won’t be attending the Special Olympics World Games, held later this year in Athens, Greece. However, other local Special Olympians will, Patty Douglass and Greg Floyd among them.
Mims said the fact that Walton County is sending several athletes to the international competition is even more reason to get support for the Special Olympics and is, in fact, the whole reason the torch run exists. Mims, who has attended several of the state games, said the spirit of competition carries over into the lives of the individual participants.
“The excitement they have when they compete and the spirit they demonstrate is incredible but it’s also something they take home at the end of the day after the competition,” Mims said. “It’s that fellowship they have and the skills they learn that are going to benefit them in their lives. That’s what they bring back and share with their family and friends.”