Team San Fernando jogging through the San Fernando Mall while carrying the “Flame of Hope” torch to raise awareness for the Special Olympics. (SFVS Staff)

There was a slight drizzle in the air Wednesday morning in the City of San Fernando. Officers from the San Fernando Police Department (SFPD) and City employees laced up their running shoes and gathered outside the gates of O’Melveny Elementary School, with students nearby loudly chanting “USA!”

They waited for the torch called the “Flame of Hope” to arrive. Once it did, the team of runners began their hourlong jog through San Fernando, the sirens of police cars blaring the whole time on their path — the sound attracting curious onlookers along the way.

This early morning torch run has been an annual tradition for San Fernando for seven years and all for a good cause: to raise money for local athletes in the Special Olympics of Southern California.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run is a public awareness campaign and fundraiser for the Special Olympics with thousands of officers from southern California getting involved. It takes place throughout multiple counties this week —  San Fernando had its turn to carry the torch on June 7.

Team San Fernando, which included City employees and police, carried the “Flame of Hope” torch — which represents inclusion, respect and the spirit of the Special Olympics — through the City along a 2.5-mile route led by team captain J. Robles, an SFPD field training officer. 

Students Cheered as Special Olympics Athlete Carried the Torch with SFPD

LAPD Mission Division passed the torch to the 30-member San Fernando team who officially started their run in front of O’Melveny Elementary.

Gerardo De La Cerda, an athlete on the San Fernando Special Olympics basketball team was one of Team San Fernando’s leaders, running at the front of the pack.

“It feels amazing to have this type of environment,” De La Cerda said. “If it wasn’t for these officers, all the volunteers and all the coaches, all the support that we have, we wouldn’t be having the Special Olympics over the years.”

Terri De La Cerda, Gerardo’s mother, was at the starting line to cheer for her son. She said she was proud of his participation in the Torch Run, which he’s done “for around eight years.” 

“With all the things going on about acceptance … it makes me sad sometimes that people are still judgemental,” Terri said. “Everybody’s different and doing this, I think, raises more awareness to help those with disabilities just continue their sports programs with the Special Olympics and beyond.”

 “It’s always great to be part of any advancements that the Special Olympics is involved in and involves the athletes,” said Lt. Irwin Rosenberg who is also the assistant state director for the Torch Run.

The SFPD first became involved in the Torch Run in 2016. Rosenberg said that the city of San Fernando has raised close to $100,000 since it joined the effort. This year, the team so far has raised more than $5,000 in sponsorships and donations, with 100% of the proceeds going toward the Special Olympics.

“I’ve heard young men and young women talk about how the other word that starts with an ‘R’ hurts them [that is negatively used to describe] their intellectual disability … and it has such an impact on these individuals who are giving their best,” Rosenberg said. “This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that everybody counts and everybody needs to be included.”

San Fernando resident Michael Remenih was one of the spectators cheering on the runners at the start of the run. It was his third time experiencing it from various vantage points. 

“This is really [an example of] community involvement … [it’s] because of the community, the spirit and of course the Special Olympics, that it’s just an incredible event.”

The Torch Run comes a week ahead of the 2023 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which will begin in Berlin, Germany, on June 17. Rosenberg will be there to hand out medals to athletes from the Southern California region.

More Than 30 Years of History

But the history of the Torch Run goes back much further, when it began in 1981 in Wichita by Kansas Police Chief Richard LaMunyon. It was a big enough hit that police chiefs from other cities took notice and came on board. It came to Southern California in 1986 and has been continuously growing ever since.

Luke Farnell, senior director of the Torch Run, said that by the early 1990s, it was raising approximately $4 million a year. In total, the campaign has raised $960 million for the Special Olympics; $22 million has been raised in Southern California since 1986.

Team San Fernando taking a small break in front of the San Fernando Police Department building after completing more than half of their 2.5-mile jog through the City to raise awareness for the Special Olympics. (G.Arizon/SFVS)

“It grew pretty quickly over the first 10 years and … it’s made a huge impact on all those Special Olympics programs that are the beneficiaries of the fundraising and awareness that the officers are out there are making happen,” Farnell said.

Farnell explained that beyond raising funds for athletes, the campaign gives officers the opportunity to interact with them. He said that he has often heard from these officers that volunteering in the Torch Run is one of best experiences they have in their careers. Farnell himself joined the campaign after volunteering for the first time nearly 10 years ago.

“They [officers] end up coming out, thinking they are going to help the athletes, and then what ends up happening is that the athletes help them feel more … a part of their community and the officers feel like they live better lives because of the work they’re doing,” Farnell said. “It means a lot to me to be able to give back … [and] knowing that our work is giving the officers and the athletes better lives.”

During his time with the campaign, Farnell said it has grown “immensely.” However, it did take a hit during COVID-19 pandemic; it was canceled in 2020 and the torch runs in the following years were much smaller than usual.

The campaign still isn’t back to full capacity, Farnell said, as not every community is able to participate due to the lack of staff. On the other hand, the Torch Run is showing steady growth with 104 law enforcement agencies participating in the run, whereas the usual number is around 80 or 90.

Farnell wants to keep spreading awareness of the campaign to other agencies who may not know about it, saying it’s “the best kept secret around,” even though it shouldn’t be.

“It makes me really proud to be able to give officers these opportunities to come out and interact with our athletes.”

With pockets of spectators applauding, Team San Fernando jogged through San Fernando Mission Boulevard and Brand Boulevard, made a U-turn towards Maclay Avenue, made a small detour around the police station and City Hall and traveled down San Fernando Road before ending at the Rydell dealership, where they handed the torch off to the LAPD Foothill Division. 

“For me, it’s one of the highlights of being a law enforcement officer,” said Rosenberg.

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