Volunteers from law enforcement come to aid of disabled athletes


STAFF MEMBERS of the Maryland House of Correction ran, walked and pulled their darnedest Tuesday at the ninth annual Department of Correction Law Enforcement Torch Run, Walk and Tug of War.

Volunteers estimate that they raised more than $24,000 for disabled athletes to take part in the Maryland Special Olympics games next month.

The morning began with the Torch Run, was followed by a Torch Walk around the seven buildings in the Jessup facility and culminated with the Tug of War with 18 teams of volunteers. At the end, there was a huge picnic for participants and small prizes were handed out.

Tom Schniedwind, senior vice president of sports marketing for Special Olympics, said the games have a devoted volunteer base in law-enforcement agencies in Maryland and around the world.

The Torch Run is an international fund-raising event in which local law-enforcement groups hold competitions and sell commemorative T-shirts. The money allows Special Olympics athletes, coaches and families to participate for free.

In Maryland, law enforcement agencies raise money with a variety of events. State troopers hold a Polar Bear Dip, and transportation police have an Airplane Pull, in which teams compete to drag a 747 jet across the runway.

In 1993, Commissioner Richard Lanham asked Bob McWhorter, who at the time was in charge of the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp for adults, to coordinate the department's participation in the Torch Run. It was a slow beginning. That year, the group sold 23 T-shirts.

Since then, participation from the department has grown. In 1998, the Torch Run raised more than $13,000. In the process, McWhorter noticed a few things.

"Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that there were fewer runners," he said. "I knew I wanted to have everyone involved. It's good employee morale."

So a Torch Walk was added to the annual event, and office staff and nonrunners signed up. The runners ran a three-mile course through the seven buildings and handed the torch to the walkers, who made the circuit at a more leisurely pace.

"It got to be a neat time," McWhorter said. "They take their lunch along and have a picnic."

Now McWhorter had the walkers and the runners participating, but holdouts on the staff remained.

"We have some robust employees, some pretty big guys," McWhorter said. "Generally, they are not runners, and walking isn't for them. I wanted to give them something - a chance to come out for the Special Olympics."

He thought about the other agencies' events and remembered the Airplane Pull. "The only thing lacking in the plane pull - the plane doesn't have an ego; it doesn't pull back," he said. "I figured that with how competitive these guys are, we could have a lot of fun."

That was the beginning of the Tug of War. The first year - in 1999 - the team from the adult boot camp won the tug. This year, staff from the Maryland House of Correction Annex took the honors - and the bragging rights.

McWhorter would like to recognize the generosity of the volunteers and thank everyone who made the event possible.

Becky Hyla coordinated the T-shirt sales. Sue Fisher coordinated the food and the fliers. Brenda Shell provided logistical support in getting the traffic, tables and amenities set up. Bob Ballanger provided assistance at the site. Dave Tower of the public information office publicized the event.

Commissioner William Sondervan led the walk, and Secretary Stewart O. Simms of the Department of Public Safety joined in.

Matt Wrathall and Peter Colabucci - Howard County Special Olympians and newly appointed honorary correctional officer ambassadors to the Special Olympics - joined Sondervan in leading the run.

Jodi Harper, a former prisoner at the boot camp, drew the logo for the T-shirts, which raised the bulk of the funds. He left the system before seeing the shirts printed but left this note to the Special Olympians: "Only by giving of ourselves can we receive life's blessings. We all have blessings. Mine is the ability to draw. It was a tremendous honor to be able to use my gift to help the stellar athletes of the Special Olympics who possess the indelible gift of courage, perseverance and unyielding enthusiasm."

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