COVID-19 concerns may initially have extinguished Special Olympics Arizona’s 2020 Law Enforcement Torch Run Flame of Hope, but the torch has been relit in the West Valley, thanks to the late-night musings of a disappointed Avondale Police Department detective.
“At 11 o’clock at night, I was just lying there and thought, why can’t we just do this virtually?” APD Detective Jenny Rubio in a telephone interview April 24. That was April 6, about three weeks after Special Olympics Arizona announced it was canceling its annual statewide Summer Games and associated events, including athletic practices and the torch run, to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“While canceling events is disappointing for athletes who have trained and practiced to compete, we know that our love of sport does not compare to the importance of protecting the health of our athletes and the entire Special Olympics Arizona community,” Special Olympics Arizona CEO Jamie Heckerman wrote in a March 17 announcement notifying athletes, their families and supporters it was canceling events through May 31. “This difficult decision was made carefully based on new developments and advice from Special Olympics International and their consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.”
Avondale officers were gearing up for their spring Tip-A-Cop fundraiser and the April 30 torch run scheduled in conjunction with officers from Buckeye, Goodyear and other departments when the cancellations were announced, dealing a blow to Special Olympics athletes and their “Guardians of the Flame” law enforcement supporters, including Ms. Rubio.
“When everything got canceled, I was very disappointed,” she said. The morning after her late-night idea, Ms. Rubio reached out to fellow participants, who agreed a virtual run was a good idea, so she pitched it to her supervisor and LETR coordinator, Sgt. Olivia Contreras. Ms. Contreras took the idea to their command for approval, then reached out to Special Olympics Arizona LETR Director Mike Burnett, and the rest is history.
The Buckeye and Goodyear police departments jumped on board, and the three departments agreed to hold a virtual event from Thursday, April 30 when the torch would have arrived at Kellis High School in Glendale to kick off the Summer Games for 1,300 athletes with intellectual disabilities competing in track and field, powerlifting and volleyball, thorugh May 3, a day after what would have been the games’ closing ceremonies.
“The mission of the Arizona Law Enforcement Torch Run is to raise money and awareness for Special Olympics Arizona. We carry the torch representing the Flame of Hope and dedicate ourselves to helping Special Olympics Arizona throughout the state,” the departments stated in simultaneous press releases April 28. “We would not want a year to go by without the Special Athletes knowing that we support them as the Guardians of the Flame.”
From April 30 to May 3, officers and the public can run run, bike or walk a 5K (3.1 miles) on their own and post a photo to social media. They are asked to tag their respective police departments using @AvondalePD, @BuckeyeAzPD or @GoodyearPolice, and include searchable hashtags #AZLETR, #ArizonaTorchRun and #APDcares, #WeAreBPD or #GYPDcares so Special Olympians and their families can find the photos.
LETR is Special Olympics Arizona’s largest fundraiser, and those who want to make donations during the virtual runs can watch their respective departments’ Facebook pages for announcements about upcoming fundraisers, or visit specialolympicsarizona.org/law-enforcement-torch-run and click on the Donate tab at the top of the page.
Ms. Rubio first participated in the torch run nine years ago when she was with the Arizona Department of Corrections.
“All I knew was we were running together with Avondale Police,” she said. After joining the department in 2013, she got more involved, participating in the department’s twice-yearly Tip-A-Cop events at local restaurants with Special Olympians.
“That’s when I really got hooked,” she said. “I finally got to interact with the athletes. I’m just as excited to see them as they are to see us.”
While she’s sorry the torch run won’t happen in real time this year, she said she’s glad her idea took hold and she’s looking forward to seeing everyone’s photos on social media in the coming days.
So is Special Olympics Arizona’s Mr. Burnett, who said other police departments around the Valley, including Scottsdale’s, are also planning their own virtual runs.
“It’s kind of cool. It keeps the tradition going. It keeps the awareness up,” Mr. Burnett said. “It’s incredible what law enforcement does for us.”
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA