HARRISONBURG — With joy beaming from Watkins Parrish’s face, he carried the “Flame of Hope” as he jogged through Court Square in Harrisonburg on Thursday morning as part of the annual Special Olympics torch run.
It was the 46-year-old Harrisonburg resident’s first year participating in the run.
“I’m really excited because I get to run with police officers,” he said.
Parrish, and three other Special Olympians, led a group of police officers running along U.S. 11 to Verona, a distance of about 18 miles.
Police throughout Virginia have participated in the annual run since 1987. About 2,000 police officers from 300 agencies take turns carrying torches through their jurisdictions.
Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English, who participated in 11 torch runs while working with the Richmond Police Department, attended his first in the Friendly City.
English became chief in September.
“This is a great, great cause,” English said. “It’s important for law enforcement to support the athletes.”
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, who has been participating in torch runs for more than a decade, said the deputies enjoy supporting Special Olympics Virginia.
“For us, it’s an honor,” said Hutcheson, whose annual golf tournament last month raised roughly $20,000 for the cause. “It lets them know we’re behind them.”
The Law Enforcement Torch Run began in Bristol on Saturday. The torch will travel 1,900 miles as it passes through several dozen Virginia communities.
The southern Shenandoah Valley leg of the eight-day torch run began Wednesday morning with several police departments starting off in Woodstock. They brought the torch to New Market, where they were met by Harrisonburg police officers and Rockingham County deputies.
From there, the torch made its way to Harrisonburg on Wednesday afternoon and began the trip to Augusta County on Thursday morning.
Several other agencies will pick up the torch as it makes its way to Richmond for this weekend’s start of the Special Olympics’ Summer Games. This year, a few dozen athletes from the central Shenandoah Valley will participate in bowling, softball and track in competition today and Saturday.
Bridgewater resident Tammy Torkelson, the area’s Special Olympics director, said the athletes love seeing the community support.
“I feel blessed to have a community that cares and will include them in their daily lives,” she said.
Troy Evans, who serves as a Special Olympics Virginia Global Messenger and travels throughout the state speaking on behalf of the organization, spoke to the runners before they left downtown Harrisonburg.
The 30-year-old Elkton resident shared a quote from the late Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” he said.