Cody Jansma is most proud of two things when he looks back over his years with the Ontario Law Enforcement Torch Run, the single biggest fundraiser for Special Olympics in Canada.
“The law enforcement officers are always happier to see the athletes than the athletes are to see them,” says Jansma, who has been manager of the Ontario LETR for the past seven years. “It’s a great relief from the stresses of day-to-day work.”
His other point of pride is breaking through the $2-million fundraising ceiling in 2017, when the Ontario LETR brought in a record $2.2-million, thanks to the hard work of some 100 police departments across the province, the Canada Border Services Agency, Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and even campus cops.
“Passing that threshold was huge for the program,” says Jansma. Expanding the base of volunteers to include border and corrections workers, as well as getting creative with activities, made the breakthrough possible.
At its core, the torch run program involves officers running alongside Special Olympics athletes to deliver the Flame of Hope to the opening ceremony of provincial, regional, national and world Games — mimicking the Olympics. But police in many communities also stage short, local grassroots fun-runs that fall under the LETR umbrella.
Over the years other activities have been added to transform the LETR into a year-round fundraising machine with some 500 events, including golf tournaments, mall drives, National Hockey League alumni games, motorcycle torch rides and polar bear plunges.
The polar bear plunge has proven to be one of the biggest earners, with 21 plunges raising $370,000 last year in Ontario.
Nearly all fundraising these days is done online using social media and peer-to-peer crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe and Fundly. Participants post links on social media to receive donations. Individual events also solicit corporate sponsors to raise money and offset activity costs.
Nationally the LETR raised $4-million in 2017. Worldwide the law enforcement community of nearly 100,000 volunteers also participates in raising money for Special Olympics. The funds are used to support community programs and to help with various expenses, including travel, accommodations, meals and staff support.
Lorne White, a retired officer with the Toronto Police Service, brought the LETR to Canada in 1987 after hearing about it at a conference in Wichita, Kan. “In the first year we raised $100,000,” remembers White, 70, formerly a constable with 22 Division. “No one could believe that, we thought it was crazy.”
From there it grew and to date the Ontario LETR has raised an impressive $35-million over the years, roughly half the total raised from coast to coast.
The first time out, more than 1,100 officers started from several Southern Ontario sites, including Barrie, Waterloo and the Niagara area, converging on Varsity Arena in Toronto.
In total, they covered an epic distance of some 900 kilometres before lighting the flame to open an international Special Olympics floor hockey tournament.
Today a typical LETR is much shorter, about five kilometres. White says it’s important for the fundraiser to roll with the times. “You do what local people feel comfortable with,” says White. “Especially at the local level, you need to find individuals who have a passion for a certain kind of fundraising to keep this going.”
Next year, the Toronto Police Service and Special Olympics Ontario, with financial support from Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto, will the play host to the first-ever Invitational Youth Games (IYG).
An estimated 2,500 participants from around the world will participate in the Games for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
The Games will feature five sports: basketball, bocce, floor hockey, track and field and soccer. Some of the events will allow for athletes with and without an intellectual disability to mix on the same team.
Other Special Olympics fundraisers
It’s a national not-for-profit organization whose mandate is to introduce the next generation of donors, volunteers and sponsors to the Special Olympics movement through social and sporting events. Marathon of Sport is its flagship event, bringing together young professionals and Special Olympics athletes for a fun-filled day of athletic competition. Motionball plays host to 32 annual events in 19 cities across the country. It has raised $9-million since inception in 2002, including $1.5-million in 2017.
The Special Olympics Canada Gala has been a flagship event for the Special Olympics movement for more than 30 years. The gala was created to raise awareness and funds for the organization, while celebrating Special Olympics athletes and their achievements. A night to embrace the transformative power of sport, Limitless brings together the business and sport communities, celebrity ambassadors and athletes. It raised $800,000 in 2017.
Northern Lights Golf Invitational
It’s an annual golf tournament that takes 22 foursomes on a three-day golf trip to some of the most prestigious courses in North America, including Pinehurst, Kiawah Island and Canada’s Cabot Links. Founded in 2002, last year it raised $100,000.