Among John Newnan's fondest childhood memories is going to picnics with his mother, who worked for the state mental health department and often volunteered to help people with developmental disabilities.
The experiences had a lasting effect: Newnan adopted his mother's commitment and has dedicated more than 20 years to helping people with intellectual disabilities.
"I made friends and realized early on that people are people," Newnan said. "It's a passion of mine. It's something I truly believe in.
"There's no better cause to be in the community than this."
Newnan, a 22-year-veteran of the Howard County Police Department, will be awarded the 2008 Hometown Heroes Chairman's Award by the Red Cross of Central Maryland at a breakfast ceremony tomorrow in Baltimore. The ceremony will celebrate 20 people from Central Maryland who performed acts of heroism, bravery, kindness and community service in 2007.
Newnan, who turns 51 this week, has been the Law Enforcement Torch Run director for Maryland since 2000 and helps coordinate the annual event to benefit the Special Olympics.
The Special Olympics Torch Run is a national event patterned after the Olympic Games. Law enforcement agents around the country light torches and use the runs to spread awareness of the Special Olympics and raise money for the disabled.
In Maryland, law enforcement began the Torch Run Relay in May. The torch headed to Towson University, where the opening ceremony for the 2008 Special Olympics in Maryland was held last weekend.
About 80 police departments and correctional agencies in Maryland participate in Torch Run fundraising efforts, Newnan said.
Under Newnan, the Maryland Torch Run program raised more than $3.2 million last year during the annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, held at Sandy Point State Park in January. The Maryland program was recently named the best in the world by the International Law Enforcement Torch Run conference. Newnan is a member of the International Law Enforcement Torch Run executive council as a regional coordinator.
"He is really outstanding as far as helping these athletes," said Douglas Lent, spokesman for the Red Cross of Central Maryland. "It's that kind of commitment to his community that is in line with everything that the Red Cross is committed to as well."
Each year, five athletes are sworn in as honorary law enforcement officers so that they can participate in the run. This year, one athlete ran an entire leg, 11.4 miles, without stopping, Newnan said. Accomplishments such as that help inspire Newnan to spread awareness that "we are all people."
"We try to talk about people's abilities," he said. "That's one of the big things that we try to get out there."
Newnan, a lieutenant and patrol watch commander in the Police Department's Northern District, became involved with the Torch Run in 1986. A former volunteer firefighter in Harford County, Newnan wanted to continue with a career in public service and became a police officer in the Havre de Grace Police Department, where he worked for eight years. He then joined the Howard County Police Department and now lives in Mount Airy.
Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said the department supports Newnan's efforts because "he's been a tremendous representative of law enforcement to the community through Special Olympics."
"He's been pretty easy to support," said McMahon, who completed this year's 11.4-mile run. "When you go out there and see those men and women and watch them compete ... it's easy to get involved. The money we raise for them, you can see the real, tangible results. It really goes back to our basic mission of making the county a better place."
Newnan's family has also become dedicated to the cause. His son, Ryan, a second lieutenant in the Maryland National Guard, was so disappointed that he could not attend the Polar Bear Plunge this year that he filled a plastic kiddie pool with 800 bags of ice and held his own plunge with his platoon in Mosul, Iraq. Ryan Newnan helped raise $6,000.
Newnan's daughter, Jessica, who will be a senior at Towson University, chose to major in special education because of her exposure to the Special Olympics, her father said.
"I'm real proud of them," Newnan said.
Newnan is passionate about his work, but he said it has its rough spots.
"I guess sometimes it just gets overwhelming," he said. "Sometimes it's disappointing when things don't work out, but you look at the bigger picture."
Though he is excited about the Red Cross award, Newnan prefers not to boast about his accomplishments. He attributes much of the program's success to the support of the county Police Department and the other law enforcement agencies in the state.
"I'm very honored honestly, but I don't know I deserve to be called a hometown hero," he said. "I don't think that's a hero - it's a responsibility.
"The biggest award I've ever gotten I don't wear on my chest - I wear it in my heart. These programs help give [the athletes] the confidence, and it helps create the awareness that we're all one people."