The evening of Friday, September 15 was set to be monthly “Fun Night” in the local community room for Region J agency Parent Teacher Organization for Exceptional Children (PTOEC) … or so they thought. What really happened that night was more memorable than anything this team could have imagined.

Officer Nick Schmidt of the O’Fallon Police Department had invited the members of PTOEC to join for a “tour” of the police department, strategically ending at their sally port where a special surprise awaited.

Watch the surprise video here.

The O’Fallon Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge #198 had generously surprised PTOEC with a brand new, wheelchair accessible, 14-passenger bus for their use at upcoming practices, competitions, and events with Special Olympics Illinois.

And the bus was decked out – from the modern blue gradient design, to the PTOEC branding, to the Special Olympics Athlete Oath stamped on the back – this new mode of transportation would certainly get these athletes and coaches to and from their destinations with style.

Officer Nick, who played a significant role in organizing this generous gift to PTOEC, has been part of Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) for almost the entirety of his 13-year police career.

“I began doing the Polar Plunge and helping out at fundraising events my first year on the job,” Officer Nick said. “Sergeant Brian Gimpel was the one who initially encouraged me to be part of it. Throughout the years, I’ve met a lot of our local athletes. Their kindness, gratitude, and positive attitudes pulled me in to get more involved.”

Officer Athlete Connection Leads to Donation

Thanks to the support of businesses and individuals in and around O’Fallon, FOP Lodge #198’s sole fundraiser of the year, over time, led the group to a place financially where they could make a larger impact in the community.

After considering where to spend the money, the group became aware of two Special Olympics Illinois athletes’ need to get involved with a new agency after their previous team had disbanded. Officer Nick and FOP Lodge #198 used their connections to get athletes Jim Morgan and Tony Hill back on the playing field, this time with PTOEC.

“Jim and Tony are two of the biggest reasons why our members keep volunteering for events and participating in LETR activities,” said Officer Nick. “We knew we had to get them back out there competing.”

Officer Nick drove Tony to his first bocce practice with PTOEC and ended up striking up a conversation with their athletic director, Tara Edwards. There, Tara identified the team’s two biggest needs: affordable gym space and accessible transportation.

FOP Lodge #198 was able to solve both of these issues for PTOEC, first having arranged for them to practice within a local school district and next, unanimously voting to dedicate up to $25,000 for the new bus.

After locating a proper passenger bus option and supplying it with the necessary equipment and design, FOP Lodge #198 was ecstatic to present their contribution to these “more than deserving” athletes.

“The reaction to that garage door opening was like something I’ve never experienced,” remarked Officer Nick. “I’ve probably watched the surprise video a hundred times since then and I get chills each time.” He concluded, “The pure joy on the faces of the athletes, coaches, and parents was something I can’t even describe.”

Sergeant Brian Gimpel, president of FOP Lodge #198, says his members are “extremely humbled by the support [they] get every year from the community” which ultimately allowed them to purchase the bus for PTOEC. In fact, this bus donation is the single largest donation that FOP has ever made as an organization.

When asked why supporting Special Olympics Illinois athletes like those at PTOEC is important to him, Sergeant Brian responded it is “the ability to help these athletes grow as individuals.” He continued, “The athletes have so much to offer and Special Olympics Illinois gives them the chance to achieve their potential, rather than being held back.”

Jim Morgan has been involved with Special Olympics Illinois for more than 18 years in different capacities such as Global Messenger and former athlete board member – not to mention his involvement in countless Illinois LETR events like Cop On A Rooftop, Polar Plunge, and numerous O’Fallon Police Department fundraisers.

About the bus donation, Jim said, “This gift will help our team so much, just in getting to and from events.” He finished saying, “I want to personally thank the FOP Lodge #198 and O’Fallon Police Department for not only this donation, but for their continued support, encouragement, love and friendship.”

The athletes, coaches, and family members of PTOEC did end up dancing the night away at “Fun Night,” but this time with a new dream fulfilled.

Click here to learn more about the mission of Illinois LETR and how it serves Special Olympics Illinois throughout the year.