John Langford, a mentor and trainer to the Afghanistan National Police Force from Canada and a member of the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR), recounts a beautiful story of the power of LETR and the unprecedented commitment to Special Olympics that law enforcement officers demonstrate not only in their own communities but around the world. John embodies Margaret Mead’s words “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Enjoy his story below:
For the past seven years or so I have been a member of the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR). I first got involved in the charity as a cyclist for the Law Enforcement Torch Ride, a 500km ride that took place for several years around central Alberta. I attended a couple of LETR conferences in Oklahoma and Dallas where I saw the scope of LETR and just how encompassing the organization was. When I learned that Calgary was putting in a bid to host the first LETR conference outside the USA I ensured I was part of the planning committee. We put in thousands of hours of work leading up to the conference and, from what I hear; the event went off without a hitch. I never got to see the fruits of our labour because I deployed to Afghanistan for a yearlong mission approximately three weeks before our conference in Calgary.
In Afghanistan I am a mentor/advisor to the Afghan National Police in the nation’s capital city Kabul. This rugged, mountainous country is like no other place that I’ve been. It is a wrought with extreme violence and poverty. Everyday many people go hungry and without the necessities of life, so it goes without saying that those with special needs are completely overlooked by a population that is doing everything they can just to survive themselves.
Soon after I got here I contacted the National Director of Special Olympics Afghanistan (SOA) and I learned that the organization was seriously struggling financially. They had tried to host their Special Olympics Summer Games several times in the past but they had to be cancelled due to lack of funding. A further set back occurred recently when members of the training team were violently attacked by the Taliban when they were coaching a Special Olympics girl’s team. After the attack I asked them if they still wanted to hold the Summer Games and, in true Afghan spirit, they said they would. I don’t think anybody would criticize the organizers if they decided not to host the event because of the ever present threat of the Taliban returning. Amazingly, they were not intimidated and they showed true strength and resolve by not backing down.
For months I had been trying to organize a Torch Run on the camp that I live on, but the military legal advisors were extremely reluctant to let me host a fundraiser on the base. Fundraising was a road that the legal department was not comfortable going down so after weeks of negotiating I thought back to one of the most basic, fundamental Canadian concepts that we all grew up with. Hockey. On July 1st, 2012 eight teams registered for a Canada Day charity hockey tournament on a neighboring base, with all money raised going to Special Olympics Afghanistan. I was grateful for the $582 that was raised but the reality was it would not be enough to pay for the Summer Games. I wrote a donation request to an organization called Boomer’s Legacy Fund. This fund was set up in memory of a Canadian soldier, Corporal Andrew Eykelenboom, a medic who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. Like me, Boomer was a Canadian soldier who served with the military unit 1 Field Ambulance, so because of this connection I was particularly honored when the foundation agreed to donate the $5,000 I had requested for Special Olympics Afghanistan.
On August 30th I was fortunate enough to attend Ghazni Stadium in Kabul to see the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Special Olympics Afghanistan Summer Games. The $5,582 raised was enough to finance the event for more than 200 athletes, coaches and volunteers. This is the second time in eight years that they have been able to put on the games. I was led to a seat where I sat in the sweltering Afghan heat with the President of the National Olympic Committee and other dignitaries. The athletes paraded past us in the same way athletes entered the stadium at the Olympics in London earlier this summer. To my shock and surprise the last group of athletes was carrying a large sign that read “Mr. John Lang Ford Football Team 2012”. I still can’t express in words how that made me feel. I’ve always known the athletes have been appreciative of our efforts in LETR but to have that sort of recognition by such a deserving group of athletes, in a country that many people have completely given up on, was overwhelming. The fact that this was occurring in Ghazni Stadium, a former Taliban mass execution sight, made it seem even more surreal. A little more than a decade ago this stadium was literally a killing field, and now I was witnessing what those of us who have been involved with LETR have come to know and cherish – athletes who otherwise would never have had a chance, competing and cheering for each other just for the love of sport. There was no war. No Taliban. It was amazing to see that contrast in the stadium; I hope one day it spreads through the entire country. I stayed for the first race, the 100 meter sprint, and I was privileged to be able to hand out a medal to one of the finishers.
Back in Calgary the Alberta LETR team has been busy meeting members of the Afghan community in our city and explaining the plight of Special Olympics Afghanistan and the athletes effected. The Alberta LETR team came up with a fantastic idea in hosting a corresponding hockey tournament, with help from Calgary’s Afghan community, to raise money for Special Olympics Afghanistan. The funds raised will sustain this charity and hopefully provide enough for them to host a Special Olympics Summer Games again next year.
The Calgary LETR Team has certainly taken on a global perspective over the past couple of years. I think it opened their eyes as to how wide spread the LETR family is when the International Conference was held in Calgary. What they are now seeing is that many of these Special Olympics organizations around the world are experiencing serious hardships, both financially and from a human rights perspective. I’m proud of the Alberta team for helping out with Special Olympics Afghanistan. I can’t express how badly the help is needed in this country and the Afghans have shown me that it is genuinely appreciated.