How NJSPBA members went above and beyond in the 40th annual Law Enforcement Torch Run
By Esther Gonzales
The sun beat down on Linden Local 42 member David Kother during the early afternoon of June 9. His feet pounded the blacktop. For a brief moment, he paused on St. Georges Avenue, which runs along many businesses in town.
Ahead, as far as he could see, residents from the neighboring towns of Linden and Rahway chanted and cheered on the runners in the 40th annual Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) Law Enforcement Torch Run.
Repeated honking from drivers passing by accompanied the sounds of cheering. And Kother shared this special moment with his wife, Denise, who joined him in the Torch Run.
“We love running in the Torch Run because of what it supports and the fact that we can all get together,” Kother explained. “I know some people that are in Special Olympics, so I run to support them.”
Kother has been on the job for 28 years and running in the Torch Run for just as long. In the past, he has pushed his children in a stroller during the run. And this year, his 12-year-old daughter, Naomi, ran with him in the SONJ Statue of Liberty 5K on the Fourth of July.
Like many NJSPBA members, Kother doesn’t pass up a chance to go the distance to support Special Olympic athletes.
“I think it’s tremendous that we can help these young men and women that are working so hard to achieve these goals that we take for granted so often,” Kother added.
Every year, North Haledon Local 292 members give an open invitation to residents in their community to join them in the Torch Run. Local 292 member Anthony Conforti seemed to always be inspired when Special Olympic athletes decide to take them up on the offer.
In fact, he is left speechless when these athletes are running beside him.
“I can’t even describe that,” Conforti expressed. “Every year it’s rewarding. It’s such a good feeling to participate.”
Beginning their leg of the run at William Paterson University at 7 a.m., Conforti and his team were escorted by motors units from various agencies. They passed through Wayne, North Haledon and Hawthorne, where support for the cause seemed endless.
“The response is always positive,” Conforti described. “We have drivers beeping their horns, hands out the windows in support, people on their porches encouraging us and motivating us and cheering us on. As we cut through each town, the positive response is all the same.”
Union County Local 73 member Mark Grzeda is always looking for a way to give back to the community. That is one of the reasons he has become involved with SONJ.
Usually, Grzeda puts together a team for the SONJ Polar Bear Plunge. This year, he took up the challenge of coordinating the Torch Run, too.
And even though many Local 73 members were still on duty during the run, they were eager to join the cause.
“I really have to thank the members who came out this year and ran,” Grzeda expressed. “Imagine running and then you have to come back to work in a patrol uniform.”
The joy of taking up this special cause spread to parents in the community who joined the Torch Run and also pushed babies and toddlers in strollers.
Grzeda seemed to radiate with gratitude that even local families and children wanted to spread awareness for SONJ.
“It’s a warm feeling inside that others want to help like we want to help,” Grzeda related. “It’s an excellent feeling knowing that we did something for someone that needed help, that maybe possibly couldn’t have gone to the Special Olympics. And that we raised whatever we could to make that possible, to make that dream come true for an athlete that otherwise couldn’t participate on that level.”
Carrying the American flag, Plainfield Local 19 member Jonathan Rodriguez jogged on streets that were wet from the morning rain that had sprinkled on the start of the Torch Run.
Passing through downtown Plainfield, Rodriguez listened to the continuous applause and praise. It seemed like not even the rain could dampen the reason behind why Rodriguez and so many other members were running.
“My wife has a family member, actually, that participates in the Special Olympics,” Rodriguez shared. “It’s something that he looks forward to, and it’s possible because of events like the Torch Run. I’m proud to be a part of it every year.”
After Local 19 members reached their destination and passed off the Flame of Hope, they erupted with celebration, congratulating one another and exchanging high-fives. And wishing the next team luck.
When the clock struck 4 p.m., it was time for one of the last legs of the Torch Run.
Bedminster Local 366 member Brian Smith joined his fellow members and members from neighboring Morris-Somerset Local 139. Their route brought them through the rural areas of Bedminster and along U.S. Highway 202.
At that point, Smith seemed to sense that this cause was one all can rally behind.
“When you see that citizens are still out there supporting law enforcement, you’re hopeful for the profession,” Smith added. “We come on the job because we want to do good, help people and make a change. And I just look forward to doing it again next year.”