By Karen Zautyk
If you were on Kearny Ave. late last Friday morning, you most likely saw a group of men, one of them holding a torch, jogging down the street.
The runners were members of the Kearny Police Department, and the torch — the “Flame of Hope” — represented the law enforcement community’s support of the Special Olympics, which this year has special meaning for our state.
Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the summer games of Special Olympics New Jersey took place at the College of New Jersey in Pennington, with the athletes competing in aquatics, gymnastics, track and field, softball, tennis, powerlifting and even bocce.
That annual event is always cause for excitement and celebration. But later this month, there will be reason for even more, as the national games come to the Garden State.
From June 14 to 21, nearly 3,500 Special Olympics USA athletes from across the nation will be in New Jersey, along with 1,000 coaches and 10,000 volunteers.
The official opening ceremony is set for June 15 at the Prudential Center (“The Rock”) in Newark; the closing ceremony, June 20 at the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. On event days, the competitors will participate in 16 individual and team sports at nine venues centered around the Princeton area.
The events and their sites include: aquatics and athletics (Princeton University); basketball (Rider University and the Hun School); bocce and powerlifting (College of N.J.); flag football (Lawrenceville School); gymnastics (Peddie School); bowling (Brunswick Zone-Carolier Lanes); cycling (Skillman Park); baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and triathlon (Mercer County Park).
The athletes are children and adults with what are termed “intellectual disabilities.” As explained on the homepage of Special Olympics N.J. (www.sonj.org): “Special Olympics believes that through sports training and competition, people with intellectual disabilities are benefited physically, mentally, socially and spiritually; families are strengthened, and the community at large, both through participation and observation, is united in understanding . . . in an environment of equality, respect and acceptance.”
As for law enforcement’s involvement in Special Olympics, that dates back to 1982, when Port Authority Police Officer Steven Vitale was asked to photograph some events in N.J. He was so impressed, and moved, by what he witnessed, he reached out to other cops to volunteer at the games.
In 1984, the first Law Enforcement Torch Run was held in N.J. Its purpose: To raise both funds for and awareness of the Special Olympics. For 30 years, police officers thoughout the state have been participating.
“Almost every police department in New Jersey raises money,” Officer Tom Pontrella of the KPD told us. This is done via direct donations and business sponsors and fund-raising events throughout the year, including a Polar Bear Plunge, the Lincoln Tunnel 5K Run-Walk, and the United Plane Pull.
Pontrella was among Friday’s runners, who took the torch from North Arlington and handed it over to Harrison. Also running the Kearny Ave. course were KPD Capts. Scott Macfie and John Gouveia and Officers John Fabula, Rich Pawlowski, Brian Wisely and Jordenson Jean. Later in the day, the KPD Honor Guard traveled to Trenton for the opening of the N.J. Summer Games.
If you would like to contribute to the Special Olympics via the KPD contingent, you can contact Pontrella at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to learn more about Special Olympics USA and the upcoming national games, visit www.2014specialolympics.org.
There, and at www.sonj.org, you will also find information on how to volunteer with ongoing programs. There are myriad ways to help — everything from coaching and scorekeeping to serving food and helping with registration.