The experience of being with the athletes and the community inspires NJSPBA members to revere the Law Enforcement Torch Run
By Esther Gonzales
As NJSPBA members ran through Roselle Park on June 10 for the 39th Annual Law Enforcement Torch Run, children eagerly raced to the fence of their elementary school to applaud and cheer. Before that, at the front of the Church of the Assumption, a group of senior citizens from the Senior Spirit Center waved American flags as runners passed. And along the route, throughout the town, drivers honked their horns and waved to Roselle Park Local 27 members on the run.
The endless celebration and encouragement for Local 27 members pushed them up the last hill, where they handed off the Flame of Hope to a waiting team of members from Kenilworth Local 135.
“It’s an exhilarating experience,” Local 27 State Delegate Greg Polakoski described. “When it’s hot out, you get a little tired or a little winded, and then you come up to the crowd, and that gives you that little boost of energy.”
The experience of the Torch Run is something State Corrections Local 105 retired member Beth Krauss knows well from the past 22 years of participating.
And this year, when she learned one of the Special Olympic athletes, Morgan, was injured and couldn’t join the run, Krauss and her team decided to make a surprise stop. They brought the run to Morgan.
When they arrived at Morgan’s house, Neptune Township Local 74 member Matt Kochen handed Morgan a flame that truly gave her hope. Morgan smiled through tears, which reminded Krauss that moments like this are what keep you running that torch through all the miles.
“We’re a village of just outreach and support for our families,” Krauss remarked. “And just to look back on that and know that she didn’t get to miss out. She still got to have a little part of it, and it made us feel better that she didn’t miss it.”
Running side by side with Special Olympic athletes and carrying the torch nearly 750 miles across the state exhilarates and inspires members to keep running. The inspiration from those athletes is what compels thousands of PBA members to carry the torch every year.
“The supporters on the run definitely make things a lot easier as they’re cheering everybody on,” Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office Local 265 retired member Joe Macones expressed. “But one of the best parts of it is when we run with the athletes. And they have the opportunity to carry the torch with us. That’s one of the most memorable parts for me.”
The thrill of the run
At the start of the 2022 leg in Roselle Park, 6-year-old Francesco eagerly took off running alongside his father, retired Local 27 member James Kompany. At first, Kompany thought his son would only make it a few blocks, so he was pleasantly surprised when Francesco was eventually running in front of the pack, leading them.
It was a special moment for Kompany to share the joy of the run with his son.
“I was so proud of him,” Kompany declared. “Having him run with me, at 6 years old, that was awesome. Just the memory itself.”
As the Kompanys neared the end of their mile-and-a-half route leading into Kenilworth, bright lights from patrol vehicles flashed over the bridge. A team of runners appeared.
Kompany had anticipated this moment of handing off the torch, and a sense of brotherhood rushed over him.
This was the thrill of the run.
“At the end of the day, for us, it’s camaraderie and it’s something to do in the community,” Kompany attested. “But the athletes who run the Special Olympics and compete in the Special Olympics, that’s really what it’s about. So any kind of positive recognition for them is really what we’re looking for. We’re a catalyst for that in this particular race, but we can’t forget about what it’s really about.”
Cheers poured over into Allendale, where Allendale-Waldwick Local 217 State Delegate Vinny Rizzo ran side by side with Mikey, an athlete who has been running with members for nearly 30 years.
Mikey’s determination and continuous presence motivated Rizzo to continue another step further.
“He pushes harder every year, even though as we get older it gets a little bit harder,” Rizzo related. “But you know what? You see him carrying that torch and it makes you just dig a little bit deeper, or run a little bit harder, and get to that finish line.”
The sun beat down on Rizzo. Despite the heat, exhilaration seemed to give Rizzo another kick.
“The fact that Special Olympic athletes are running stride by stride with us, it just motivates you to push that much harder,” Rizzo explained. “We might both be struggling a little bit, it’s a little hot, we’re a little bit physically tired, but we just motivate each other to keep on trucking along.”
And it is that same drive that inspires Macones, who was running as a retired member for the first time.
After last year’s run, his running partner, who was a retired chief, told Macones that once you do the Torch Run as a retiree, you’ll wind up always coming back. And although Macones has been participating for five years now, running alongside the Special Olympic athletes carrying the Flame of Hope and hearing the supporters cheering along the 9-mile route reminded him just how remarkable the experience is.
And that maybe what his partner said had proved to be true.
“The supporters on the run definitely make things a lot easier as they’re cheering everybody on,” Macones related. “It makes the length of the run a little bit more bearable. And I was the Local 265 State Delegate for eight years. So, for me, it’s mainly about just helping others.”
Support along the way
Local 217 member Kevin Acevado is no stranger to the Special Olympics. Before coming on the job 10 years ago, Acevado served for six years as a Special Olympic coach and as a special education teacher.
He wanted to find a way to bring that passion into his law enforcement career. Since coming on the job, Acevado has served as organizer of his department’s Law Enforcement Against Drugs program.
Through that relationship, Acevado was able to give the fifth grade class of Brookside School in Allendale the opportunity to join Local 217 members in the Torch Run.
More than 110 students and their families joined Local 217 members this year. And experiencing the run with those students enabled them to witness the immense level of support from the community.
“Having parents and students run, and when I hand them the torch and they’re handing it to one another and they each get a turn holding up the torch, and to see their reaction to that — that’s what I’m thinking of,” Acevado explained. “I’m actually not even looking in front of me, which I probably should so I don’t step in a ditch. But I’m really focused on what it means to the kids, because they’re getting this one opportunity to do it. And to see them do it, it means a lot.”
Similarly, seeing children filled with excitement and cheering for the runners and members gathering together felt like Christmas for Local 27’s Polakoski.
When one of the members’ daughters, who has Down syndrome, carried the torch at the end of their route and handed it off to a member from Kenilworth, Polakoski knew the virtue of enduring the heat that day.
He saw her beaming from ear to ear.
“She was super excited and happy to run,” Polakoski submitted. “And just to see the smile on her face makes it all worthwhile.”
Before pursuing her lifelong dream of a career in law enforcement, Local 105’s Krauss worked as a physical therapist and trainer for Special Olympic athletes. But it was through the Torch Run that Krauss combined her love for Special Olympic athletes and her love for law enforcement.
During her numerous years participating in the run, Krauss has observed all the incredible and unique ways the Torch Run has become a unifying force. Such was the case this year when state corrections recruits took time out from the academy to run with Special Olympic athlete Colin Tobin, whom Krauss has known for 10 years.
“And just watching Colin and all of the recruits getting exposed to it, watching the officers getting exposed to actually running with an athlete was just probably my best experience in all the years,” Krauss submitted. “Just watching his face and everybody’s faces, it was great.”
But this year also held another memorable moment for Krauss. She had been chosen to run the final leg.
When her team reached the stadium at the College of New Jersey, all 18 torches from the various routes of the run were placed together. Krauss then ran the Flame of Hope to a Special Olympic athlete who lit the cauldron in the center of the stadium to signify the start of the Summer Games.
“That was a really memorable moment for me, just to stand there with the athlete,” Krauss submitted. “I just hope we can get younger officers involved. They need to come out and see it and experience it.”
Next stop, Florida
Marlboro Township Local 196 member James Caulfield was chosen as this year’s Law Enforcement Torch Run representative for New Jersey. When Caulfield boarded the bus to travel to Florida on May 30, a Special Olympic athlete from Missouri, Brett Harper, saw him and asked if they could sit together.
He immediately said yes, and they quickly formed a new friendship.
Over the next few days, Caulfield watched Harper’s confidence grow significantly. When Caulfield met Harper’s family, they noticed the difference too and asked what he did.
Caulfield credited the change to the hundreds of law enforcement officers who had gathered behind the athletes to support them. And being a part of that is the reason Caulfield has dedicated so much of his time to the torch run.
“I really think that it’s the officers that were on that bus that gave him that feeling of family and confidence and trust, and that’s why his level of confidence skyrocketed,” Caulfield attested. “Seeing that and being able to be a part of it, those are the reasons that I keep coming back. Being able to make a difference, and being able to see a family appreciate law enforcement as a whole, and the joy that they get from seeing the athletes happy, when in all reality, those athletes are doing so much more for us than we’re doing for them.”
From sunup to sundown, Caulfield ran mile after mile, from Miami to Orlando. And he said running those miles made it so worth it, because nothing could compare to the feeling of walking into Exploria Stadium in Orlando with all the New Jersey Special Olympics athletes on June 5.
“Seeing the athletes and just watching their reaction and how much it meant to them and how everyone was so in the moment, that was by far the experience that I’ll never forget,” Caulfield commented. “When I got back, I was talking to my chief, and I’m trying to put everything together and I’m like, ‘I’m having trouble finding the words because there was just so much going on.’ It was just amazing. It was absolutely amazing.”