A grey fog hung heavy over the Bear Republic parking lot as the Guardians of the Flame, officers from the Cotati and Rohnert Park Police Departments, stretched and readied themselves to carry the Torch of Hope seven miles from Rohnert Park to Petaluma for their leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
Since its inception back in 1981, the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) raised over $700 million for the Special Olympics, but this year presents unique challenges. For starters there’s Covid-19, which seems to work its way into every facet of our lives lately, and then there’s the 2020 election, which concluded the night before. Predicted civil unrest drastically reduced the number of officers who could participate. The pair of problems worked to drape an aura of uncertainty over the procession, as thirteen Guardians of the Flame charged into the churning mist, flickering torch clutched by their vanguard.
“We normally have athletes,” said Aaron Johnson, deputy chief of police for Rohnert Park. “To have an athlete run with you—to see their face light up, it’s life changing. We don’t get that this year.”
And yet despite these challenges Sonoma County is on track, according to Johnson, to come in third in fundraising within the North Bay region with $10,500 raised, a record for our county. But Johnson wants more. If he has his way, the final tally will conclude with Sonoma County in second.
“We have never raised this much,” he said.
The windfall comes as much-needed good news for the Special Olympics as the organization has suffered a $3 million cut to their budget in 2020, mostly thanks to the ravages wrought by Covid-19. The pandemic has made it impossible for the Special Olympics to safely host their events, leaving many of its athletes without a chance to strut their stuff. For the athletes, this is devastating; they worked hard, overcame countless challenges, but the disease has rendered all that work, essentially, for naught.
“I have a son with a disability, so this is near and dear to my heart. It’s such an important cause. There’s no selfish component—it’s all about giving to the athletes,” Johnson said.
As the Flame of Hope made its way along the Expressway and into Cotati, drivers honked their horns in solidarity. At the Cotati Coffee Company, a woman waved at the police as her son tugged on her skirt and asked, “Why are they running, Mommy?” Through Penngrove and into Petaluma, blue-red lights heralded the procession, guiding the Guardians of the Flame into the Applebee’s parking lot to a smattering of applause.
Money might still be tight, but Johnson feels that for the Special Olympics fundraising is only half the benefit for the run. The other is awareness. “If you’re driving up and see one police car and a couple runners that might get your attention. But if you’re driving down the road and see thirty runners and five police cars that really gets your attention,” he said.
If you would like to donate to the Special Olympics, or to share your story of how a disability has affected someone in your life, you can find more information on their website at www.specialolympics.org.