Korey Cleland (left) and Cst. Raymond Leonhardt of Red Deer camped out over the weekend outside the Red Deer-North Walmart to raise funds for the Law Enforcement Torch Run in support of Special Olympics Alberta. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Korey Cleland (left) and Cst. Raymond Leonhardt of Red Deer camped out over the weekend outside the Red Deer-North Walmart to raise funds for the Law Enforcement Torch Run in support of Special Olympics Alberta. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Free our Finest raising huge funds for Special Olympics Alberta

Event is the biggest fundraiser of the year for Special Olympics Red Deer

Over a loudspeaker, in the parking lot at the Walmart in north Red Deer, a booming voice encouraged passersby in all kinds of unique ways.

It was nearly impossible to miss Korey Cleland, an officer at the Red Deer Remand Centre who was perched on a scaffold, charmingly heckling shoppers.

“We dubbed ourselves the Red Deer hecklers,” Cleland joked on Saturday.

“If you have holes in your jeans, we’ll tell you to go buy new pants. We’ll call you out if you have socks and sandals. We’re really good at engaging the public.”

Of course, it’s all in good fun and in the name of a good cause.

Cleland was in his fifth year participating in the Free Our Finest event over the weekend, raising money for Special Olympics Alberta through the Law Enforcement Torch Run program.

The officer started camping out Thursday night in a tent on the scaffold just outside Walmart, along with Cst. Victoria Rudiak with Drayton Valley RCMP and Cst. Raymond Leonhardt of Red Deer.

The goal was to raise $10,000, but after nearly hitting that goal Friday, Cleland said he’s aiming for $20,000, which was typically the goal pre-pandemic.

“The premise is we don’t get off (the scaffold) until we reach our goal,” he said, adding he planned to spend about 53 hours.

“The more money we can raise, the more money there is for the athletes.”

With the event being cancelled last year because of COVID-19, he said this year was more important than ever.

“It’s good to get back in the swing of things and raise money for the Special Olympics… even missing that one year they took a significant hit. It’s good to get back and have central Alberta come in and support us the way they did,” he said.

That message was reiterated by Jerry Tennant, chairman of Special Olympics Red Deer. Tennant said Free Our Finest is their biggest fundraiser of the year and goes a long way to help Special Olympics athletes compete and participate in sport.

“The funds go to programs we run here in Red Deer. We have 300 athletes and a lot of them don’t have the resources to pay for it,” he said.

“This pays for our facilities, uniforms and equipment and some of the other travels that we do for competition.”

Cleland said he’s seen first hand the pride those athletes have and it motivates him to come out, year after year.

“I’ve seen when the athletes come to this event or other events and we see the same athletes. They bring their medals and they’re so happy,” he said.

“We love hearing their stories and we love seeing the medals and seeing the hard work that we do, help put a smile on their face… we’ve become friends. They work harder than we do, they bust their butts. Their smiles are what keeps me going.”

The other source of motivation is community support. Throughout the province, Red Deer routinely comes out as one of the biggest supporters of the event.

“This event in Red Deer – they’re held throughout the province, the free our finest. Red Deer has always been the highest-grossing of anywhere in the province, the community support here is terrific,” he said.

Tennant said people may not even realize what that money does for athletes.

“It’s been 18 months. We had to quit early in 2020 and nothing over this last winter. We’re hoping to get started again in October. They’re anxious to get back,” he said.

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