The flame that never runs out

For the 40th Law Enforcement Torch Run, NJSPBA members describe what keeps them coming back to carry the torch

By Esther Gonzales 

Strap on your running shoes and join Meg Hammond as she stands beside Special Olympics athletes, lighting the Flame of Hope to guide their leg of the Torch Run.

Running with athletes from Huntington and Somerset, Hammond said she feels drawn to them. That special connection is what has made the past 23 years with the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) for Special Olympics of New Jersey (SONJ) so memorable for Hammond. And one of the best parts of her career.

“This community means so much to me,” remarked Hammond, who is the PBA’s Special Olympics liaison. “To be able to watch athletes compete and get to know the families, you feel like a part of this family.”

And perhaps that feeling is what will bring Hammond and so many other NJSPBA members back to the Torch Run this year on June 9, as they prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this life-changing event, which is bigger and better than ever.

“It just represents who we are and what we’ve become,” Hammond expressed. “It started from just a few runners out west, and it grew to all these states, all these legs and all these people. And to see from year 1 to year 40, the growth, the participation and the money that we’ve raised, it’s absolutely amazing.”

It could be the hottest summer day, with the sun’s heat weighing on Hammond, or it could be raining as she runs down the highway, but it’s the same feeling every year, she said.

“As soon as you get to see some of the athletes along their way, honking and cheering you on, it just changes your whole mindset,” Hammond related. “And you realize every year, this is why we do this. It’s that one person that you can change or influence or inspire, as well, because you get it right back in return.”

Those echoing cheers led right into the Special Olympics Summer Games, where, for the opening ceremonies, Hammond joined many other officers lined up at the Athletes Tunnel to high-five and greet the athletes from various counties.

“It’s just so big and so well done,” Hammond described. “You can see where it all goes to. And you’re just extremely proud to be a part of it and humbled at the same time. It’s just so empowering, so inspirational and so motivational. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Children, families and supporters lined the streets to applaud the 2022 Law Enforcement Torch Run teams carrying the Flame of Hope for Special Olympics.

Hammond passed the torch to Edison Township Local 75 member Jason Gerba, who has participated in almost every Torch Run for the past 25 years. He related what it’s like to carry the torch on the final leg into the stadium at the College of New Jersey.

Selected to run the final leg in 2022, Gerba raced into the stadium toward the large cauldron, where he placed his torch. Together with the other 35 representatives from every leg throughout the state, they ignited the flame to start the Games.

Gerba relished the feeling.

“It felt like it was a movie,” Gerba described. “It feels like you’re a movie star when it’s happening. That was just a great moment for me, and having my family there really meant a lot too.”

Gerba remembers witnessing the immense joy on the athletes’ faces when they saw him and other officers in uniform during the opening ceremonies in Trenton 10 years ago. That joy compelled him to continue his participation with SONJ and become a coordinator for his county. The more he became involved, the more he wanted to do.

Gerba believes PBA members will feel the same way if they experience what he did.

“Show up to the opening ceremony and engage the athletes,” Gerba urged members. “It sounds cliché, but there’s no other way to put it. Once you go to this event and you see the smiles you bring to the athletes’ faces, you’ll never stop going after that.”

The torch is now passed to Point Pleasant Boro Local 158 President Brian Fennessy, whose daughter Piper is a young Special Olympics athlete.

Fennessy first caught a glimpse of the impact of the Torch Run when he had the opportunity to walk Piper into the stadium for the Summer Games a few years ago.

“It was very surreal,” Fennessy related. “She was so excited for it, and it was very emotional for both of us.”

In 2021, when the Games were moved out of Trenton to locations throughout the state because of the pandemic, Fennessy volunteered to award medals to the athletes. That solidified for him just how important it was for members to join this effort.

“There’s really nothing better,” Fennessy described. “You look at these kids and these adults that are doing it, and you can just tell that it means the world to these athletes. Just being able to be there and just absorb some of that off of them, it’s almost intoxicating.”

This torch run relay ends with retired Monmouth County Detective Local 256 State Delegate Robert Flanigan, who has been an LETR deputy director for central Jersey since 2015.

Thinking of the indescribable joy standing with the Special Olympics athletes at the Summer Games brought tears to Flanigan’s eyes. He recounted how these kids see officers standing in uniform, holding a medal, and they run as fast as they can to jump into their arms.

“You have to wear your sunglasses for that event,” Flanigan said. “It’s very emotional, because they’re just out there doing their best and having a great time. It’s kind of like an overload of joy because you’re so happy for them and [you see] how accepting they are to you.”

Flanigan remembers walking into the Summer Games one year and seeing an athlete he thought he recognized. It was a worker from his former high school whom he hadn’t seen in years. After reconnecting, Flanigan felt a profound sense of happiness and pride. Now, year after year, Flanigan is requested to award the athlete his medal.

“To see the appreciation of the athletes, the appreciation of their families and the unconditional love that they give you just because you’re in uniform, it becomes almost selfish,” Flanigan added. “You enjoy it so much, and you see how much you change their lives and make their lives a little bit brighter. But they make your life 10 times brighter.”