The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was among the law enforcement agencies enjoying a slow chase on Tuesday afternoon along Belleville streets. They were escorting the Flame of Hope along a relay route for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.
Relay teams came from across Illinois to carry the torch in half-mile increments to raise awareness for the organization, games and athletes. The World Games start on July 25 in Los Angeles; three routes are bringing torches to the city. Belleville is along the central route.
One athlete from the metro-east is going to the games as a soccer player; the Special Olympics will cover the costs for Anthony Cahoon of Marissa and his coach to attend the games. The relay and torch runs are fundraisers to allow travel and playing time for athletes, but more importantly raise awareness, a spokeswoman said.
“It’s the first time doing a run like this,” said Michele Evans, spokeswoman for Special Olympics Illinois. “There have always been Torch Runs with law enforcement; this is the first time for the athletes and lay people to carry the torch too.”
The first team to start in Belleville was a unified team from the Bloomington-Normal area and was a truly “unified” team because of its makeup, organizers said. The team included four athletes, four Special Olympics staff and board members, four law enforcement officers and one volunteer. Athletes have to be at least 8 years old and have an intellectual disability or developmental delay, Evans said.
“Being part of this team today is amazing. It’s everything that makes up Special Olympics,” said board member Kathy Schniedwind, of Normal, referring to the athletes, volunteers and law enforcement members. “This is a unified team.”
Schniedwind has volunteered with Special Olympics for 37 years this week, she said.
“I love working with people with intellectual disabilities, and I love to see them excel,” she said.
Nik Jones was the team’s captain and an officer with Bloomington Police Department. He’s been involved with the organization for about 15 years.
He has a specialty in his volunteer focus, he says, “I give hugs and high-five’s ... that’s specifically mine. I’d say that’s the athlete’s specialty too.”
He said the athletes have “awesome” personalities, rebounding quickly from any mishaps in the games. “I just wish everybody I know, as a police officer, were like that,” Jones said.
Philip Drinan, of Normal, is one of the athletes. His parents helped him get involved when he was about 10, said his father, Ron, after acquaintances talked highly of the sports program. Philip now plays softball, basketball, bowling and more.
“Self-esteem is a major thing with him,” Ron said. “He’s had successes, particularly lately, and he’s taking more initiative to do more... that wasn’t expected.”
Philip was still grinning well after his part of the run was over. “Yes, I did (carry the torch) for a while,” he said.
Metro-east volunteers are wanted for several activities this summer, including softball, bowling and bocce ball events. Call Linda Wunder at 618-654-6680 or email her firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.