The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, along with other local police agencies, took off their boots and put on their running shoes to raise funds and awareness for people with disabilities, carrying the Special Olympics torch through the city Wednesday.
The event started on Golf Course Drive in front of Mary’s Pizza Shack June 16, where several Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety officers, along with members of Cotati Police Department and California Highway Patrol and officers from the Sonoma State University and Sebastopol Police Departments, carried the torch just over seven miles through Rohnert Park down into Petaluma.
Aaron Johnson, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief, is the Law Enforcement Torch Run state director for California and Sonoma County. He has been with the department for 24 years and said the department has been participating in the torch-carrying since then, but they made a big push to raise awareness in the last ten years.
The torch route started Tuesday in Cloverdale and in the afternoon stopped at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Then Wednesday, the Santa Rosa Police Department took the torch into Rohnert Park. Next, Johnson and his fellow officers took it through the city down into Petaluma to conclude the Sonoma County portion of the carrying. Finally, the torch will end up at the University of California, Davis, where the “Flame of Hope” will light the cauldron for the start of summer games June 26.
“We’re still waiting to see based on COVID if we’re going to be able to do [the opening ceremony]. That’s where law enforcement go, and you know welcome the athletes, and it’s amazing how rewarding it is,” Johnson said.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, created the Special Olympics in 1968 to provide a sports organization to children and adults with disabilities. Today it offers year-round activities and training to over 5 million athletes.
The Law Enforcement Torch Run to support the Special Olympics first started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1981 to raise money and awareness for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted it nationwide in 1983.
Today, over 3,500 law enforcement members participate nationwide, and the cause has raised over $600 million since its inception. The Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Special Olympics in Northern California started in 1996 and has contributed by fundraising $18 million, according to the Special Olympics Northern California official website.
The SONC raised donations on their website and had a goal of $165,000. As of June 9, they had collected just shy of $235,000 which is more than they raised in 2019, according to Johnson.
The department's involvement in raising awareness and money is extra meaningful for Johnson, who has a son with an intellectual disability.
“My heart it is behind the awareness and inclusion piece; whether it’s school and sports programs and just friendship circles, I think it’s important,” Johnson said. “The athletes will often say that law enforcement are their heroes. But I would say conversely, these athletes are our heroes. They show you perseverance; they show you dedication; they show you unconditional love; they don't judge people.”
The coronavirus pandemic caused organizers to cancel the Special Olympics in 2020, which according to Johnson, was devastating for some of the athletes who this event is a foundation for a lot of their lives.
“When that was taken away, you can imagine a lot of these athletes, it really disrupted them more so than you were I. And funding is critical to make this happen, and we weren’t able to do all of our fundraising events,” Johnson said. “Funding became an issue, and so this year, once things have started to open up a little bit, we've been able to start increasing our fundraising, and that's what we're doing now.”