Nicholas Cunningham has only been on the job a scant few weeks and he’s already making a difference in and around the Barrie Police Service’s fleet building.
It is his first official work term and the first one between a Special Olympian and city police.
Staff are enjoying his go-to positive attitude and his sense of humour — no matter what his assigned task is. His work can range from sprucing up an old hoist for new use to helping with seasonal tire changes for more than 100 vehicles.
“It’s busy, busy,” he told BarrieToday with a grin, his eyes twinkling. “It’s very good working with people and working on police cars and stuff, making them look nice.”
Cunningham has some experience helping out at a family member’s garage, which made for a good fit. He also has an interest in it and for fun, enjoys watching all different kinds of YouTube videos about cars.
The 23-year-old Special Olympian works two days a week, Monday and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. He received a uniform with his name on it and he is paid for his work.
“His work is considered to be very valuable, just as important as anyone else,” said Barrie police Insp. Carl Moore, who oversees operational services.
Barrie police and the Special Olympics have a long history — locally, provincially and nationally. It is a supportive relationship that goes beyond fundraising to becoming actively involved with the athletes.
Moore and Cunningham met six or seven years ago and knew his father from 25 years ago. At the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run, they began to develop a relationship. Since then, they have become friends participating in a variety of events as well as hanging out socially and occasionally getting together for a meal with Moore’s family. He also keeps in touch with Cunningham in between events.
They cemented their partnership a participating in Cunningham’s first Polar Plunge, in support of the Special Olympics, in 2018 as well as the Torch Run and other events leading up to the 2020 Special Olympics, held in Thunder Bay, a national event where Cunningham earned a bronze medal in snowshoeing.
“It was awesome to watch,” said Moore, who added the Barrie Police Service supported his taking time off work to travel to Thunder Bay to cheer on Cunningham.
The Special Olympian is considered to be the sixth fastest show racer in all of Canada. Cunningham's win followed four gold and one silver medal in athletics at the 2017 Provincial Summer Games. He also completes in track and field, floor hockey, and baseball.
The national games take place every two years alternating between summer and winter. They serve as a qualifying event for Special Olympics Team Canada to compete in the Special Olympics World Games.
Beyond the social aspects, the games provide athletes with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to showcase their talents and test their skills against their peers.
The competition is known to be “fierce and exciting” for spectators because the athletes push their personal best as far as they can go which pushes their competitors to do the same. At the end of each event, all of the athletes gather together and congratulate each other.
The 2020 national games, held at the end of February, were the last Special Olympics event before everything shut down because of COVID. As a result, events where possible moved to virtual but it was not the same. Cunningham missed his friends, particularly his best friend, multi-sport athlete and fellow polar plunger, Jason Helmond.
Moving into 2022, events have started to open up again and take place in-person. The Law Enforcement Torch Run, in support of Special Olympics, marked its 35th anniversary with a return to in-person. The Barrie run took place on June 22.
Special Olympics has also launched a new event this year for the athletes. The 'Hometown Games' will have athletics meeting for different activities and socializing in cities throughout Ontario. The first for Barrie was five-pin bowling at the beginning of May.
The pandemic did bring one significant event Cunningham’s way. He became an uncle to a little boy who marks his second birthday this year.