Torch run culminates in special day of pride

Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
and Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications 

CDCR staff continued a tradition of helping Special Olympics by participating in the charity’s torch run this summer.

Dozens of prison employees help run through Solano County

Dozens of state prison employees braved the blistering Vacaville heat to show their support for Special Olympics of Northern California. Joining them for the run through Solano County was Erick Silva, a Special Olympics athlete whose contagious energy inspired the runners to keep on going.

“My son loves it – this is his day,” shared Erick’s dad, Brian Silva. “Special Olympics is just part of our life. I love that it’s a chance for the kids to shine.”

The Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) carries the “Flame of Hope” on its way to UC Davis for the Summer Games. The torch was run by law enforcement agencies, including the Vacaville Police Department, Solano County Sheriff’s Department and employees at California Medical Facility (CMF) and California State Prison-Solano (SOL).

The first CDCR employees to grab the torch in Solano County were from SOL with Erick Silva joining the group on their way to CMF. Monica Romero, litigation coordinator at SOL, said Special Olympics is a cause that’s easy for people to get behind.

“It’s pretty awesome, because it gives every participant in Special Olympics a chance to compete on a level like everyone else,” she said.

In addition to running in the LETR, Silva also competes in Special Olympics events year-round, including basketball, baseball, soccer, track, swimming, softball and bowling.

This year SOL raised more than $9,000 for the cause, holding “Tip-a-Cop” restaurant fundraisers, T-shirt sales, a Pigskin Madness football competition and the Bike the Bridges cycling event. SOL Capt. (A) Marlaina Dernoncourt, who serves on the LETR executive committee for Northern California, said meeting the athletes and seeing them shine makes all the fundraising work worth it.

“The athletes are amazing,” she said. “The athletes make it all worth it. They just make me want to do as much as I can for them.”

Department of State Hospitals Administrator Jane Bergman and Executive Director Ellen Bachman were part of the team that picked up the torch at CMF, transporting it to the Vacaville Police Department. Both said they were proud to support the cause – even if it meant running through Vacaville at noon on a hot summer day.

“Special Olympics is about helping others and just being all one, a part of a greater good,” said Bergman, adding that as part of the “Gator Nation” of the University of Florida, community service is a priority in her life.

Vacaville Police Chief John Carli was there to greet the runners as the torch arrived at police headquarters. He said seeing his officers and CDCR staff come together with law enforcement agencies is a great example of Vacaville’s spirit of community service.

“So many times we come together for reasons other than something that is positive – not always the community’s best day,” he said. “It’s special for our staff, and to see the collaboration, watching others show up, is a reminder that we’re not in this alone. We’re in this together.”

CDCR officials discuss contributions at Capitol event

As the torch arrived at the state Capitol on June 24, a crowd gathered to cheer on the runners.

CDCR Undersecretary Diana Toche thanked a Special Olympics athlete for her encouragement after a family struggle.

“It’s a pleasure to stand with California leaders, law enforcement staff and my dear friends, Molly Hamtil (and her father) Greg,” Undersecretary Toche said. “Molly is my inspiration. When my husband was involved in a grave cycling accident, I stopped riding myself and focused on his recovery. Molly encouraged me to complete my first Bike-the-Bridges event three years ago. And she still encourages me to push onward and do more.”

She said CDCR staff and inmates raised $167,000 across the state for Special Olympics.

“Of that, $137,000 went to Special Olympics of Northern California & Nevada last year,” she said. “Our employees are passionate about making a difference, as are the people in custody. Special Olympics athletes like Karissa Krater, Global Ambassador, provide purpose and foster rehabilitation for California offenders through inmate fundraising campaigns.”

The Torch Run and other fundraisers benefiting Special Olympics come with their own rewards, according to those who work hard behind the scenes.

“Law enforcement doesn’t raise funds because we have to, we do it because we want to,” said Dan Winter, the Northern California Law Enforcement Torch Run director and assistant chief of the Santa Clara Police Department.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier, who was honored as the Special Olympics Volunteer of the Year, has been involved for a dozen years and is sponsoring legislation, AB 2371, to help people make donations to the Special Olympics.

“Each year I volunteer at the games is like my Christmas,” said Frazier, who at times fought back tears. “Seeing the smiles on the athletes’ faces is my reward. I’m proud to sponsor our legislation for the check-off box on the tax returns (to make a donation).”

He said the efforts of law enforcement deserve to be recognized.

“I want to thank our law enforcement partners and all you do to protect the special-needs community,” Frazier said. “The public needs to see more of what you do.”

David Solo, president and CEO of Special Olympics Northern California, said LETR has “generated over $13 million since its inception. It’s the equivalent of funding 45,000 athletes.”

Special Olympics athlete Jonathan Sparks said the games help give people with special needs a feeling of pride.

“People say I’m a star but that’s not how I see myself,” Sparks said. “I see myself as (an ambassador) to show people those with disabilities are just like everybody else.”

Avery Brown, Assistant Commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, renewed his agency’s commitment to support Special Olympics.

“Karissa is not just an athlete, she is family to us,” he said. “The games are a positive example to everyone.”

Mule Creek State Prison warden carries torch to cauldron

As the top fundraising prison this year, Mule Creek State Prison had the honor of running the final leg of the LETR, which end at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games at UC Davis. MCSP, which raised more than $30,000 for the cause, was represented by Warden Joe Lizarraga, who carried the torch all the way to the Olympic Cauldron.

“It was amazing,” he said. “My heart is so warm right now.”

Lizarraga said at the recent statewide wardens’ meeting he issued the challenge to his peers throughout the state to become the top fundraising prison. While it’s his intent for MCSP to be number one again, he’s happy for any prison that rises to the occasion.

“We have some incredible staff who work there,” he said. “They have big hearts, and whenever there’s an opportunity to give back to the community, they step up and they open their hearts, pour out their emotions and open up their wallets.

“That’s what it’s all about for large organizations like CDCR – to give back. We have a duty to do that.”