Story and photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Other photos by Joey Pagaduan

Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) athletes and supporters are getting awfully good at high-fives. They must have slapped at least a thousand of them May 25 at California State Prison, Solano (SOL), as over 300 inmates joined several staff members and a host of visitors in the second Flame of Hope Run.

Despite work wages that earn less than a dollar per hour, inmates represented the bulk of a $5,689 donation to SONC. Participants also joined athletes on jaunts around three recreation yards, and celebrated awareness of the Special Olympics with live music, inspirational speakers, photo-ops, medal presentations and the Solano Veterans Group color guard.

CDCR streamed portions of the event in a 22-minute video broadcast live on the CACorrections Facebook page, amassing 176 comments and nearly 8,000 views.

Richie Nunno, organizer and participant on the level 2 yard, was featured in that feed and spoke to the impact the fundraising event had on the inmate population.

“A lot of us talk about when we get out we are going to do good, but we are starting here,” he said. “When the community comes in and sees us they are inspired by our change and see we want to support the Special Olympics and their programs.

“I have a cousin who is 11 years old and she has Down syndrome, and I have always wanted to do something for her and never have. They call her Princess Leah and she has as much energy as an 11-year-old could possibly have.”

Athletes and ambassadors Karissa, Jason and Tiffany delivered most of the high-fiving and shared bright smiles as inmates and staff professed their admiration for their courage and spirit.

SONC Fundraising & Events Manager Scott Souza thanked the donators and explained how contributions directly realize participation for athletes in various sports each year.

He spoke after heartwarming words from inmates, SOL staff, athletes and even CDCR Undersecretary of Health Care Services Diana Toche, a triathlete and longtime supporter of the Special Olympics.

“CDCR has been engaged in Special Olympics for many years, but it was five years ago that we made a strong pledge to demonstrate our support in new ways that can make a significant difference,” Toche said. “I’m pleased to share that we have come a long way since then, and it’s been a rewarding experience.”

She joined SOL Correctional Officer Eric Handy on the ceremonial runs around the yards. It was Handy who broke ground at the institution by running with inmates and athletes last year.

“It’s not about green and it’s not about blue. It’s about the Special Olympics people,” Handy explained. “It feels good to be a part of it. I’m just excited.”

Handy was one of several staff members to be recognized during the event. Inmates saved their highest recognition for Facility Capt. Marlaina Dernoncourt, who provided the vital link between inmates and SONC and made efforts to push the event into existence.

She was brought to tears when inmates championed her efforts with “save the best for last” recognition.

“This is the only event I know of where staff and inmates come together to raise money and awareness for such an amazing cause,” Dernoncourt said. “I really feel the officers and other staff that participate in programs with inmates are changing the culture in the prison system.

“It really does change lives. Not only is the impact for Special Olympics amazing, but I think the inmates and staff get more out of it just by participating in events like this.”

Alonzo Riley, organizer on the level 3 yard at CSP-SOL proved a terrific host and shared his insight on the day’s success.

“The level 3 population has stepped up to the plate despite chaos and ongoing issues,” he said. “I am proud that they took this event seriously.

“I feel that generosity is the highest form of living and giving. It provides a positive transformation for the population.”

“I have a friend who is special needs,” level 3 music coordinator Charles Joseph added. “I see the need for this program and event to continue and grow. It provides much-needed assistance and finances to the Special Olympics organization.

“Level 3 responded beyond expectations. We are seen as not caring for anybody, but we are showing humanity we have a heart.”

When she took a break from all the high-fives, Karissa’s mother, Christa Trinchera, took a moment to thank participants for their support.

“We love being a part of this great big family,” she said. “What law enforcement and CDCR have done is incredible.

“By getting the inmates involved, for the first time in their lives they are giving selflessly ― many of them ― and it’s incredible.”