URI’s Sgt. Vieira helps make Special Olympics at University even more special

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URI Police Sgt. Erica Vieira
IN A BANNER WAY: URI Police Sgt. Erica Vieira poses in front of the Special Olympics flag at a Polar Torch Plunge in 2009. URI photo

Member of police department, Richmond resident to accept major award on behalf of URI

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 27, 2016 – Sgt. Erica Vieira joined the University of Rhode Island Police Department 29 years ago, and during the early years of her service, she noticed something odd.

Every year when June rolled around on the Kingston campus, she observed police officers from around the state finishing the statewide torch run to open the state summer games of Special Olympics Rhode Island. But URI police were not among them.

For Vieira, that had to change, especially since the games have been the major Rhode Island athletic event for people with intellectual disabilities at URI for more than 46 years.

A COP AND HER FAITHFUL PARTNER: URI Police Sgt. Erica Vieira scampers out of the water in March with her dog Maxwell during the Polar Torch Plunge in March at Salty Brine State Beach. The event benefited Special Olympics Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Erica Vieira.

When the 48th Rhode Island games open Friday, June 3 at 7:30 p.m. at URI’s Meade Stadium, URI police officers will not only be a central part of the torch run, they will be involved throughout the weekend when more than 1,500 Special Olympic athletes come to Kingston. In addition to their participation, the University police have become a fundraising force.

That involvement is largely the result of Vieira’s advocacy for and involvement with Special Olympics Rhode Island for 22 years. Because of the Richmond resident’s commitment and the support of her fellow officers, she has been selected by URI’s Department of Public Safety to accept this year’s Special Olympics Inspire Greatness Award on behalf of the University the opening day of the games.

“I would see these officers running on campus to open the event, and I thought, ‘URI hosts this event every year.’ I saw all of these people from law enforcement involved with this great event and wondered, ‘Why aren’t we (the police) doing anything?” Vieira said.

She set out to change that. Now, in addition to the Polar Torch Plunge to raise money, she organized a team from URI police to ride their mountain bicycles from the Statehouse to Kingston, a ride of 38 miles. She did it for 15 years, and the tradition, which coincides with the torch run, continues this year. URI police also award medals to winning athletes and cheer their performances.

THE GANG’S ALL HERE: Members of the URI Police Department assemble during the 2016 Polar Torch Plunge for Special Olympics Rhode Island in March at Salty Brine State Beach. Front row from left: URI Police Patrolmen Nicholas DeTroia, Austin Webb, and Michael McCabe, Public Safety Director Stephen Baker and Det. Mark Brasil. Back row: Campus Police Officer Trainee John Bush, Public Safety Senior Information Technologist Paul Ricci and Police Maj. Michael Jagoda. Photo courtesy of Erica Vieira.

“Sgt. Vieira has led the efforts to assist with Special Olympics for a number of years and she has inspired other members of the department to do the same,” said Stephen Baker, URI director of public safety and chief of police. “You do it once and you get hooked. I truly believe it is more rewarding to us, but the athletes really appreciate seeing police officers helping out over the weekend. It is a great event and we are proud that URI is the host site.”

“It’s great fun, and I love all of the athletes. I can’t put into words the effect they have on me, and it’s the same for many people,” Vieira said. “Through Special Olympics, the athletes are able to experience things that might not be available to them otherwise, such as traveling all over the country and world for international competitions.”

For this year’s Torch Run Polar Plunge in March at Salty Brine State Beach in Galilee, she enlisted Public Safety Director Baker, Police Maj. Michael Jagoda, Det. Mark Brasil, Patrolmen Michael McCabe, Nicholas DeTroia, Austin Webb, Raul Douglas, John Bush, campus police officer trainee, and Paul Ricci, senior information technologist and emergency dispatch supervisor.

Oh, and don’t forget Vieira’s pal Maxwell, a certified search and rescue dog, which has made every plunge with her. This year alone, the campus police/public safety group raised $6,200 and McCabe raised another $1,200 by selling T-shirts.

Patrolman Paul Hanrahan was scheduled to take part, but missed it because he was covering the shift of another officer who had become sick.

“So Paul went to (URI’s) Narragansett Bay Campus at 6 one morning, set up a camera to take video, and then dove into the frigid water alone,” Vieira said. “We have the feeling that if you tell people you are raising money for an important cause, then you should fully commit to the participating. Paul went the extra mile by completing the plunge on his own and recording it so we would know he did it.”

Vieira’s invitation to the 2007 Special Olympics International Conference in Oklahoma City was the spark for much of her recent advocacy.

“While we were in Oklahoma City, we attended a meeting about a plunge that had raised money for various state programs around the country,” Vieira said. “That’s how our plunge started 9 years ago.

Each year since then, she and Maxwell, have submerged themselves in the icy waters of the Rhode Island coast to raise money for Special Olympics.

Because of her efforts, she has been invited by Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson to be the 10th member of the Rhode Island Super Plunge Team for 2017, which requires the participants to plunge into icy waters 24 times in 24 hours.

Jagoda also had high praise for Vieira’s efforts. “I am very proud of Sgt. Vieira, Officer McCabe and all the other officers who participated in or donated to this great event. The time, dedication, and commitment that Sgt Vieira puts into this event show her esprit de corps for the URI Police Department and the community that we serve every day.”

Vieira was quick to point out that her participation and the growing participation of her fellow officers are the result of administrators in the Department of Public Safety who believe URI police are part of the campus community and larger Rhode Island community. She said this kind of service fits the model espoused by Baker and Jagoda that URI police will be visible, approachable, responsible and willing to lend a hand in a variety of circumstances.

“I must thank all of the command staff and officers of my department for volunteering their time by participating in various events in the past, as well as dressing in their Class A uniforms when handing out awards to the athletes,” Vieira said.