A Part of the Family: Special Olympics Volunteer Steps Up for Local Sergeant After North Bay Fires

Eric Riddell is used to going above and beyond for others.

Riddell, a 30-year veteran of the police force and a retired sergeant for the Novato Police Department, is a longtime supporter of Special Olympics. He helped to coordinate his area’s Torch Run Final Leg for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, serves as a softball and track and field coach for the Sonoma region and often volunteers his time at competitions and events.

So when he was asked to help out at the recent Marin-Sonoma Regional Bowling Competition, Riddell had no idea what his Special Olympics ‘family’ had in store to return the favor.

Riddell, like many others in the region, tragically lost his home in the wildfires that tore through the North Bay in October. Along with all of his possessions, he lost his collection of law enforcement memorabilia – including badges, certificates, and more – that he had planned to enshrine in a shadowbox to honor his years of service.

“Everything and anything that you could think of related to my law enforcement career was in that bin,” said Riddell. “But it all went up in smoke.”

Tracy Rivkin, a 17-year volunteer for Special Olympics in Marin and co-founder of Marin’s Best, heard about Riddell’s loss and decided to act. While she had never met him before, she knew that he was a part of the Special Olympics family. And that was enough.

“I met with Sonoma Area Director Heather Bond to go over some details for our event,” explained Rivkin, who as head bowling coach oversees the annual bowling competition as well as the Marin Games. “She just happened to mention that there was a police officer from Novato who had lost everything. And I said, ‘Oh, let me see what I can do.’ I called my local police department and said, ‘I have a really odd request.’”

Tracy’s request was for the department to help replace Riddell’s lost badges and for permission to present the badges at a Special Olympics competition. Unbeknownst to him, the Novato Police Department worked to find replicas for two of Riddell’s officer badges and had them ready for Rivkin and her team to surprise the sergeant at the competition on December 3.

“When I went down to the event, I had no idea that anybody had talked to Tracy about me losing my house,” said Riddell. “So right before they did the oath and everything for that tournament, they had me walk up in front of everybody. I didn’t know what was going on.”

With an unsuspecting Riddell front and center, the Opening Ceremony shifted to telling the story about his family losing their house and his lost badges; and what those at Special Olympics had done to help him.

“They made the announcement and it really got to me,” said Riddell. “I really hadn’t been very emotional through this whole process. Not because it hasn’t affected us, but you just kind of compartmentalize things to keep moving forward. So when they make the announcement and hand me the badges, I just kind of broke down. All of these people, all of these athletes and their families, a lot of them lost their homes, too. So I just broke down. It was very emotional, very sweet.”

Riddell was visibly moved by the gesture as he hugged Aaron Damm, the officer from the Central Marin Police Department, who had presented his new badges. For someone who has spent his life in service of others, it was a different experience for him to be on the other side.

“That’s one of the reasons that I broke down,” he explained. “They’re being so nice to me, and the athletes and their families deal with so much even on a daily basis – let alone some of them lost their houses. I’m used to helping people. It was really touching and somewhat strange to have all of that flipped on me.”

Rivkin, who enjoyed the sight of two “big burly cops hugging and crying,” had demonstrated the impact and bond that Special Olympics has for one of its own. Law enforcement continues to play a major role to further the organization’s mission and is involved in competitions, fundraising and much more.

“I think it speaks to the relationship between Special Olympics and first responders,” said Riddell. “If the Special Olympics community hears something going on, there’s no hesitation; they’re there. And the first responders feel the same way about the Special Olympics community. If they need us, we’re there. That was a small microcosm of what that whole relationship is really about.”