Special Olympics Florida

Special Olympics Florida and law enforcement fill Jacksonville streets for Torch Run

Written by:  Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville.com

Assistant Chief Lakesha Burton whipped up her cellphone Friday and turned to dozens of Special Olympics athletes standing on the Police Memorial Building steps with police officers from across the region.  “Are you all ready?” she said as she prepared to take a wide-screen selfie of herself and about 300 other people. “I’m sending this one to ‘The Ellen Show.’ ”

Assistant Chief Lakesha Burton gets a selfie Friday with area Special Olympics athletes and local law enforcement before this year’s Jacksonville Torch Run kicked off at the Police Memorial Building (Dan Scanlan)

Everyone on the Bay Street steps gave the “No. 1” sign as the shutter snapped, then moved down to the asphalt to begin the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s 2019 Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Florida. At the lead, Sheriff Mike Williams carried the Flame of Hope that’s traveling to similar runs in all 67 counties, joined by Chief Larry Schmitt.

Behind them were athletes who will compete in the State Summer Games next month, many from Palm Avenue Exceptional Student Center, Pine Castle and the North Florida School of Special Education. And with them, officers, deputies, troopers and agents from dozens of agencies from the Sheriff’s Office and IRS to the Florida Highway Patrol and the Beaches police departments shared the morning.

“We have had good participation at this event, but we wanted to raise the bar a bit,” Williams said. “This event is actually bigger than it’s been in the past couple of years. We did a lot of promoting in the law enforcement community, so it looks like it worked this year, and we will keep ramping it up.”

Special Olympics Florida – Duval County offers 15 sports to more than 1,500 athletes, many of whom competed in the district’s area games March 30 at Atlantic Coast High School. Now they focus on the State Summer Games on May 17 and 18 at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams begins to run with the Torch of Hope with Chief Larry Schmitt (right) as Friday’s Torch Run began on East Bay Street.

“I am walking to spread awareness for Special Olympics to help advocate for people with disabilities,” said Robbie Culliton, who will be competing in golf. ”  I do 18 holes. I am pretty good.”

Florida’s Law Enforcement Torch Run kicked off March 25 in Escambia County.  Jacksonville’s Torch Run launched at 10 a.m. down East Bay Street to ultimately end at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds at 510 Fairgrounds Place.

Sales of special t-shirts and hats worn by Williams and many police runners Friday netted about $6,500, helped by a March 28 “Tip-A-Cop” fundraiser at a local restaurant. Those funds will help pay for the athletes’ bus trip and hotel accommodations to State Summer Games.

That’s welcomed news after national Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed, then retracted, plans to slash federal funding for Special Olympics, Duval County Director Jessica Ray said.

“This is obviously really important, trying to show unification between the law enforcement members and community backing us up and what we are doing,” Ray said. “It’s really important because it shows our athletes here that people are behind them and care about them, and it is not always about funding.”

The torch’s next regional stop is at 9 a.m. April 23, as the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office starts at Riverfront Park in Palatka. That’s followed at 8 a.m. April 24 with the Fernandina Beach Police Department’s run, then 4 p.m. the same day in St. Augustine for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. Clay County’s Torch Run is April 26 and Nassau County’s is May 3.  View all Florida route schedules.

Florida’s Torch Run ends May 17 when police officers from across the state bring the Flame of Hope into the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games opening ceremony in Lake Buena Vista.