By Kirra Grimes
LOCAL police officers, South Gippsland Specialist School students, and participants of adult disability services Interchange, Yooralla, and ‘Connecting2Australia’ took to the streets of Leongatha last week to promote the message of inclusion and acceptance in the town’s first Law Enforcement Torch Run.
A collaboration between Special Olympics Australia, Victoria Police, and GippSport, the event saw around 100 people, including six visiting Special Olympics athletes, follow the ‘Flame of Hope’ on a 1.2 kilometre route from the Leongatha Police Station to Mary Checkley Reserve, in support of a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
Following a cauldron-lighting ceremony at the Reserve, all participants were invited to join in on a range of sporting activities, aimed at breaking down barriers through friendly competition.
Event manager Matt Volk, a police inspector based in Melbourne and the vice president of Law Enforcement Torch Run Victoria, was thrilled with the response from the Leongatha community, describing the turnout as “brilliant” and likely to be the biggest yet on the Torch Run’s tour of Gippsland, which also included Korumburra, Warragul, Moe, Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale and Trafalgar.
“We’ve had lots of support from the community of Leongatha,” he said.
“We had so many people coming out of shops to cheer us on, which is fantastic because a lot of the participants don’t often get these opportunities to shine.
“The march is one chance they do get, but the most important thing is that the message continues when the tour moves on.”
Matt said the event was also a fantastic opportunity to promote positive relations between police and the wider community.
“Our role can’t just be about enforcing the law; it’s got to be about connecting with the community, and this is an example of how we can connect in a really meaningful way,” he said.
“The coppers get a lot more out of it than they expect. They’re used to seeing victims of crime, witnesses or crooks, so they can get a fairly narrow idea of what society looks like. This gives them a chance to bring a smile to people’s faces. And it can be hard to drag them away from that at the end of the day!”
Local Area Commander Paul Bruders was proud to be part of the event, alongside representatives of all South Gippsland and Bass Coast police stations.
“We want to do everything we can to interact with the community in a positive way, and this is a great opportunity to do that. It’s a really special and important occasion to be part of,” he said.
Funds raised by the Law Enforcement Torch Run go directly to Special Olympics and assist to underpin a range of week-in, week-out sporting programs and initiatives designed to help participants have fun, make friends, build confidence and compete to win and receive medals.
Australians living with an intellectual disability are the largest disability population in the country, with another child diagnosed with an intellectual disability every two hours.