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Lighting the way: Locals carry torch for Special Olympics

LAWRENCEVILLE - Were it not for Special Olympics, Jeff Jansma's son would never have had the opportunity to compete in sports like other kids his age.

That's why Jeff and his 22-year-old son Josh Jansma, a Special Olympics athlete in volleyball who hails from Lilburn, were at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center at 7 a.m. Thursday to cheer on county deputies and police officers participating in the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

"You don't understand until you have a special-needs child. You have a lot of dreams for your children, like to participate in sports, and then you find out they've got this disability," Jeff Jansma told the crowd. "Had it not been for you and the money you raise, these dreams would not have been possible."

Jansma joined about 45 Gwinnett law enforcement officers in the first leg of their 14-mile trek to the DeKalb County line at Home Depot at the intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and U.S. Highway 29. He has been training weekly all year round to compete in volleyball this summer.

"I like that it keeps me fit," said Jeff, who in addition to being an athlete is also a global messenger for Special Olympics. "I have lots of friends on my team."

Officers took turns carrying the torch, which was then handed off to a similar contingency of DeKalb officers. Officials estimated the run would take about two hours and 20 minutes at a brisk 10 mph pace.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run is a signature event for Special Olympics Georgia that raises the most money each year for its annual budget. The event involves more than 1,500 law enforcement officers from over 150 agencies who take part in a 1,000-mile, two-week torch relay to pass the Special Olympics Georgia "Flame of Hope."

The goal this year was to raise $500,000 before July, and so far the tally stands at $465,000, said Lt. Jackie Beers of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, the state director of Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics. The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department has raised about $50,000 toward that goal, and Gwinnett police have raised upward of $7,000, Beers estimated.

The relay will converge today at Emory University in Atlanta for the Summer Games opening ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. Officers enter the opening ceremony with the Olympic torch - the "Flame of Hope." The torch is passed to a Special Olympics athlete who lights the Olympic cauldron signaling the start of the games.

The games will continue through Sunday afternoon, Jansma said.