By Sean Minnihan
At any number of Special Olympics Southern California Area or Regional events, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see someone wearing one of our many hats, T-shirts, or sweatshirts you can purchase from the Rafer’s Boutique souvenir shop. But an SOSC T-shirt found 6,509 miles away in Auckland, New Zealand takes a little bit more effort, and that’s thanks to Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Zabarsky.
An invitation to be guest server at a Tip-A-Cop event led to 14 years of involvement with Special Olympics’ Law Enforcement Torch Run, and eventually a trip to New Zealand with 250 SOSC T-shirts.
For every athlete, volunteer, and staff member involved in Special Olympics, there are numerous origin stories. For Deputy Zabarsky, it all started in his first year as a peace officer and a Ventura Region Tip-A-Cop.
“It was a simple e-mail that said ‘Hey, we need officers. Can you do it?’ And I went ‘Sure, sound like fun!’ and got hooked immediately,” he said.
From this one singular event, Deputy Zabarsky has gone on to become a large proponent of Special Olympics, inclusion, and continuing state support wherever he has a chance to make a difference. His active role in LETR has allowed him to bring awareness of Special Olympics to a variety of areas ranging from his local Camarillo community, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Station, and eventually to international territory when he was invited by Special Olympics New Zealand as a guest of their Summer National Games in November 2017.
The connection goes back to the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. Hosting the event meant that several select cities would have the honor and privilege of hosting various international teams for up to two weeks prior to the Games. As Camarillo was selected to host both New Zealand and Saudi Arabia, Deputy Zabarsky was asked by the administrative sergeant to sit in on a security meeting regarding what would happen in the city while the visiting teams would be in town. Thinking he would just come in to sit and listen, his sergeant had other plans instead and informed the security team that Deputy Zabarsky was going to take over all duties. Admittedly, it was a double-take for him at first.
“They recognized I had the passion for it, they recognized my commitment,” Deputy Zabarsky said. “So I basically got assigned to both teams for the entire two weeks they were here.”
Those two weeks and the entirety of the World Games developed the strong bonds with visiting athletes that Deputy Zabarsky still has to this day.
It was especially momentous to sit in the front row of the stands and watch the teams march by for the Opening Ceremony and procession.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said, adding that the athletes would spot him and jump into the stands to give hugs and high-fives.
His connection to the teams grew over the next few weeks of competition and included a special invitation to come onto the field for Closing Ceremonies, as well. While this may have been the end of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, this would not be the end of Deputy Zabarsky’s ability to host these two teams of athletes.
He was able to arrange a surprise farewell at Los Angeles International Airport, appearing in uniform in Bradley Terminal to see New Zealand and Saudi Arabia off at the international departure gates.
“They put me behind the scenes, so when they were all at the terminal, they had me come out from behind the gate and got to see me,” Deputy Zabarsky recalled.
The bond between them would only grow stronger as time went on. Keeping in constant contact and correspondence with his New Zealand World Games athletes, Deputy Zabarsky noted that “some had gotten married, some graduated from college, some have gotten their driver’s licenses…”
“We’ve kept up and I kept getting asked, ‘Hey, you should come out here. Hey, you should come see,’” he said.
Through continued contact with Special Olympics New Zealand, Deputy Zabarsky was able to take the time off from work and spend 16 days attending their 2017 Summer National Games. His trip had several stops throughout the country, including a Christmas toy fair and event for more than 1,500 Special Olympics athletes and families, stately dinners with the opportunity to meet the current Sports Minister and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and participation in the Law Enforcement Torch Run to the steps of the New Zealand Parliament. This gave Deputy Zabarsky the chance to talk with the Superintendent of Law Enforcement and members of parliament about the importance and need to help fund Special Olympics programs in New Zealand.
But the one event that stuck out from his story was in regards to seeing the various basketball players that were on the New Zealand World Games team. Now in their home nation, the athletes were now playing for their different regions and no longer on one team together. Deputy Zabarsky visited with the athletes and was able to explain what it felt to watch them play.
“They didn’t compete against each other, they competed with each other,” he said. “They played hard against each other, but it was as if they were on the same team. When the games were over, they were hanging around with each other. It was my World Games team; they were just wearing different jerseys from time to time.”
Through his 16 days in New Zealand, Deputy Zabarsky was able to trade patches and pins and give out 250 SOSC T-shirts to athletes from all over New Zealand. In addition, he also helped establish and strengthen the bonds of friendship, competition and sportsmanship that Special Olympics is predicated upon. Regional, National, and World Games provide an opportunity for Special Olympic athletes, volunteers, and staff to work together for a common goal, for which Deputy Zabarsky has embraced over a long career as a sheriff and active leader in LETR. His passion and participation are reflected in his service to Special Olympics and also to his community.
“For whatever it is you do to help an athlete to succeed, the athlete gives you back pure unadulterated joy,” Deputy Zabarsky said. “When an athlete goes out they simply do their best, and they enjoy not just the outcome but the experience of doing it.”
Deputy Zabarsky is one of many hard working and dedicated members of our law enforcement that go above and beyond the call of duty for Special Olympics. The Law Enforcement Torch Run is comprised of more than 3,500 officers in Southern California, with a nationwide enrollment of more than 97,000 officers across 50 U.S. States and 46 nations around the world, raising more than half a billion dollars since its inception in 1981. LETR in Southern California has been at the forefront with $1.52 million raised in 2016 alone.
As part of National Volunteer Week, Special Olympics Southern California recognizes the commitment and dedication of Deputy Zabarsky and his fellow LETR members for being champions of acceptance and inclusion in the communities they serve – near and far.