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Feature Photo: Law enforcement shuttles torch for Special Olympics

From left, Heather Tubbs, Barb Shipman and Cody Danielson run down I-15 towards Butte for the Law Enforcement Torch Run carrying the Flame of Hope for the Special Olympics summer games, held in Missoula May 17-20 this year. Timothy Zavarelli and Art Collins will deliver the Flame of Hope in the World Winter Games opening ceremony as members of the Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg team in Austria.

The Flame of Hope is making its way toward Missoula once again. When it reaches the Garden City in the next couple of days, it will spark another blazing round of the Montana Special Olympics Summer Games.

This year’s Torch Run relay began April 25, and requires hundreds of individuals to carry the torch over 2,300 miles – all the way to Missoula, where the cauldron will be lit to mark the official beginning of the 2016 Summer Games. The torch is expect to arrive in Missoula on Tuesday and make the final leg of its journey to Washington-Grizzly Stadium on May 18 for the opening ceremonies and Parade of Athletes.

The Montana Law Enforcement Torch Run raises about $500,000 each year. Yet it’s only one of the ways Montana Special Olympics raises money to support special athletes, and only one of the ways law officers in Montana are involved in the statewide nonprofit.

“I’m extremely proud of the relationship between law enforcement and Special Olympics in Montana,” says Assistant Torch Run Director and Missoula County Undersheriff Jason Johnson, who is also a member of the board of directors for Montana Special Olympics and has served on the Torch Run’s international council.

Johnson explained that 60 percent of the money raised through the Torch Run stays with the local program to purchase things like sports equipment and to help athletes pay travel costs. The remaining 40 percent goes to the state organization, which distributes it to communities that don’t have a torch run to help offset their equipment and travel costs.

Special Olympics truly is an organization that helps knit together people from different walks of life and from every corner of Montana. It makes an extraordinary difference in the lives of the athletes who participate, helping them make lifelong friends and build connections with others in their community and in Montana.

That’s one of the reasons why raising awareness through Special Olympics is so important, Johnson says. An estimated 2,000 more potential athletes qualify for Special Olympics but don’t participate. Each event is an opportunity to reach them.

Special Olympics Montana may be famous for its games, but it is a year-round organization that offers training, equipment and competitive events to individuals with intellectual disabilities. It encourages empowerment, promotes acceptance – and fosters the spirit of sportsmanship.

The Summer Games are hosted by different communities on a rotating, three-year schedule. Last year was Missoula’s first time hosting the games this cycle, and our community can take pride in the fact that it was a record-breaking year for Summer Games raffle ticket sales. Nearly 110,000 tickets were sold, and nearly $565,000 was raised through ticket sales and donations.

In return for its support, the hosting community enjoys a significant economic boost. The Summer Games are one of the largest athletic events in the state, if not the largest. Anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 athletes participate each year, bringing hundreds more coaches and family members. Hotels are booked for miles around, restaurants and retailers packed, our already bustling summer streets crowded with new faces.

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All this activity adds up to more than $1 million in contributions to the local economy, and helps support more than 300 jobs, according to the Destination Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Special Olympics athletes and their supports will begin pouring into Missoula ahead of the barbecue on Tuesday, May 17, from 5-7 p.m. at Ogren Park, and stay until the games wrap up Friday, May 20.

For the duration of the Summer Games, volunteers will be needed to help set up events, staff booths, and perform a variety of other tasks – and it’s not too late to register to volunteer through the somt.org/state-summer-games website or by calling the state Summer Game Volunteer Hotline at 406-523-4343.

And of course, it’s never too late to volunteer to be a “fan in the stands” and cheer on the athletes as they demonstrate amazing feats of ability and determination.

It’s an honor and a privilege for Missoula to host these athletes, their coaches, families and fans. Let’s give our visiting athletes a warm welcome, show our hometown athletes how proud we are - and show up to cheer on every participant in the Montana Special Olympics 2016 Summer Games.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Acting Editor Darrell Ehrlick, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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