It’s a simple photo. Cop. Special Olympics athlete. Torch. A couple of smiles.
But that’s what the Special Olympics is all about. And that’s why Cortland Police Officer Joseph Peters was in Nashville last month, at an international conference for the Law Enforcement Torch Run, a campaign that raises money for the Special Olympics.
In May, Peters volunteered at the Binghamton Spring Games, where at one point, athletes asked for pictures with the ceremonial Flame of Hope, which he was carrying. Cassandra Rucker, the director of development for the Special Olympics New York chapter, snapped pictures of him with athletes wanting to hold the Flame of Hope.
One picture, taken with Juliann Horton of Binghamton, won third place an International Association of Chief’s of Police photo contest of officers with Special Olympics athletes.
A Cortland police officer since 2005, Peters first became involved with the torch run in 2013, when Rucker got in contact with the Cortland police department to organize a torch run in Cortland. It was something Peters knew nothing about.
“The more I learned, the more I wanted to help out,” Peters said.
Now, Peters spends whatever free time he has helping the Special Olympics. He attends five or six competitions across the state in a year, helping out by marching the torch or giving out medals to the athletes.
“There is no better feeling than giving these guys a medal,” Peters said.
The torch run started in 1981 in Wichita, Kansas, as a way for law enforcement officers to support the Special Olympics.
Sarah Martinez, the senior director of development for the New York Special Olympics chapter, said law enforcement groups have adopted the Special Olympics as their main form of philanthropy.
“Our bread and butter is the volunteer efforts,” Martinez said, as the New York chapter has just 50 staff members to support more than 68,000 athletes competing in 5,246 events across the state at the local, regional and state levels, as well as in school programs.
Law enforcement officers — known as the guardians of the flame — carry the Flame of Hope into the opening ceremonies of Special Olympics competitions at all levels.
Rucker said that when Peters walked around with the flame of hope, it was the first time many athletes saw it up close. She also considers Peters a celebrity among the athletes.
“They get excited when Officer Joe shows up,” Rucker said.
“They’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met,” Peters said.
Other fundraising efforts Peters does to support the torch run include an emergency services softball tournament, the Cops on Top event at Dunkin’ Donuts in August, which raised $69,000 from 39 locations around the state, and a similar event in mid-September called Law and Order at Applebee’s, where Peters raised about $500.
The Special Olympics has 220 chapters across 169 countries. New York’s chapter is the largest in North America. Fundraising from the torch run in New York state is expected to reach $2 million this year, Martinez said, which goes towards funding Special Olympics’ events.