Among thousands of participants in the 33th Annual Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run that made its way through North Jersey on a sun-splashed Friday morning were James and Donna Birchof Midland Park.
Their son, Police Officer Christopher Birch was killed last July in an ATV crash in Pennsylvania.
Throngs cheered for the couple and nearly 3,000 others who ushered a "Flame of Hope" through 50 legs across nearly 1,000 miles -- stopping at or passing through just about every town in Bergen and Passaic counties.
The ultimate destination: The College of New Jersey in Ewing, where the torch was to light a cauldron officially launching the Special Olympics New Jersey 2016 Summer Games around 7:30 p.m.
The games run through the weekend, with more than 2,500 athletes competing in seven sports: aquatics, bocce, gymnastics, power-lifting, softball, tennis and track & field.
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A leg set off Friday from the Northvale ShopRite at 7 a.m. Another leg left the Wayne Municipal Complex at 6:30 a.m. and another from Hawthorne police headquarters at 7:45 a.m.
Another leg left the Garfield Police Department at 8:30 a.m. City police were to pass their torch to their Saddle Brook colleagues, who were to carry it to Lodi on its way to Harrison.
A torch left Clifton at 1 p.m., while another was to be passed in Edgewater and Fairview around 2 p.m.
“The Torch Run is the culmination of the many hours that members of law enforcement volunteer each year,” retired Port Authority Police Chief Robert Belfiore said. “It is symbolic of the commitment and dedication that New Jersey law enforcement has for Special Olympics athletes in this state and the camaraderie that has developed between law enforcement and Special Olympics athletes."
Special Olympics New Jersey relies mostly on individual, corporate, civic and foundation contributions. One of its top grassroots contributors, the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) is part of an international campaign coordinated and managed by all divisions of law enforcement officers and officials from throughout the world.
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Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon launched the International Torch Run in 1981. New Jersey held its first run in 1984, from Liberty State Park in Jersey City to Rutgers Stadium in New Brunswick.
The international event has expanded throughout the U.S. to 35 nations and 12 Canadian provinces.
Special Olympics New Jersey provides free year-round sports training and athletic competition in 24 Olympic-type sports for more than 23,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.