Mendota Heights Police Officer Jennifer Fordham remembers the moment she realized she was passionate about the Special Olympics.
It was 2004 and she had only been in the force for a few years. At a colleague’s suggestion, she went to an event at the University of Minnesota and spent a couple hours giving out medals and meeting athletes and their families.
“As I was walking away to come home,” Fordham said, “a lady came up to me and looked at my badge and she said, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re from Mendota Heights,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I am,’ and she said, ‘Our son has participated in Special Olympics for years, and we’ve never seen anyone from Mendota Heights here, and that makes us so proud.’”
The appreciation left an enduring impression on Fordham.
“I was just blown away,” she said. “I got in the car, and I realized my face hurt because I had been smiling for four or five hours without a break because I had such a good time being around the athletes.”
Since 2004, she has become increasingly involved in Dakota County’s Special Olympics program. Before her two children were born, she coached 15 to 30 Olympians a summer in a track-and-field style competition. In 2007, she participated in a“Cop on Top” fundraiser, where she and a partner stationed themselves on the roof of the West St. Paul Rainbow foods for 24 hours, asking passerby to put money into a bucket. They ultimately raising more than $2,000.
She has since taken the leadership role in the county’s annual torch run. The 20-mile June relay—a major fundraising event—features squad car ride-alongs, athletic support staff and a picnic at the finish in Mendota Heights. Statewide, Fordham said, torch runs raise $2.2 million a year, a nearly tenfold increase since she started volunteering in the early 2000s.
Fordham has served on Special Olympics Minnesota’s executive committee, and on Nov. 2, she will be flown to Alberta, Canada to represent Minnesota at the International Torch Run Conference, where she’ll meet with 700 police officers from around the world.
The purpose of the conference, she said, is “to learn about what other programs are doing, to get new fundraising ideas, to grow your program and also to motivate and inspire through athlete interaction and success stories.”
He said she's also known to take on other volunteer opportunities such as carseat installation inspections for new parents.
For her part, Fordham said she is inspired by Special Olympics’s mission.
“A lot of these people with intellectual disabilities,” she said, “have always been told life’s going to be different, they’re going to be different, they might not ever have a job, they may not ever do sports—and when they get involved in Special Olympics, the whole ‘you won’t do this’ thing is erased.”
She lobbies her colleagues to get involved, but she said it can sometimes be difficult to persuade officers who have worked 60-hour weeks to donate their time. So far, Fordham has been successful; she said 60 to 70 percent of Mendota Heights officers participate in Special Olympics activities.
“The challenge is finding an event or an activity that will peak an officer’s interest,” she said.
“Once an officer gets to a competition and sees the absolute joy on athletes’ faces, he’s hooked, and he’ll come back again.”