Powell police officers grow beards to raise funds for Special Olympics Wyoming

February 23, 2021

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C.J. Baker, Powell Tribune

By CJ Baker
For 10 months out of the year, Powell police officers are prohibited from growing beards. But in January and February, they’re allowed to sport some additional facial hair as part of a fundraising effort for Special Olympics Wyoming.

Law enforcement agencies across the state have long worked to support Special Olympics Wyoming, which organizes training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. But the task is perhaps even more important this year: Like other nonprofits, the organization has been struggling amid the pandemic, said Powell Police Officer Matt Koritnik.

“So we’re trying to benefit them as best we can,” Koritnik said.

A total of seven Powell officers are participating in this year’s “Donate to Insulate” beard-growing competition. While the officers let their hair follicles go to work, friends, family and community members are encouraged to donate to their favorite facial hair.

Each dollar effectively amounts to a vote for the best beard, so, at least in theory, the officer who raises the most money by March 1 wins. In practice, however, the department’s “best beard” title hasn’t always gone to the top fundraiser.

For instance, Koritnik described Officer Paul Sapp as the three- or four-time defending champion — even though he was the top fundraiser in only one of those years.

“I think that everybody, [or] a couple guys [are] envious of Paul’s beard,” Koritnik explained, describing it as a “grizzly beard.”

It’s not a particularly fair fight: Sapp “can grow a nice full beard in about three days,” Koritnik said, while he “can’t tell” whether someone like Lt. Matt McCaslin is growing one.

“Nobody can compete with Paul,” Koritnik said. “But it’s still fun.”

Informed that his beard was the envy of some of his fellow officers, Sapp said he appreciated the esteem — but he disputed being the defending champion.

“[It] might be the best-looking beard,” he quipped, “but that’s not what the public thinks by their votes for dollars.”

With $250 raised as of Monday, Sapp was trailing Officer Braden Hancock, who had raised $575. Although the internal competition is good fun, Sapp was quick to note that the real aim is to raise funds for Special Olympians in Wyoming.

“Ultimately, we want the community to be involved and expressing their vote by a dollar amount for the Special Olympics,” he said. “So that’s ... the point of the beard growing.”

The department had jointly raised just over $2,000 as of Monday — and the officers hope to raise more dollars in the coming days. To contribute, visit www.bit.ly/2ZuGHUP.



‘This year has been really tough’

Special Olympics Wyoming had its competitions turned upside down by COVID-19; the organization hasn’t held any in-person team events since canceling its summer games last March.

“That’s really limited our athletes with training, and competing in those sports that they love, and they see their friends and their coaches, they come together and they’re part of something,” said Tara Short, the vice president of development for Special Olympics Wyoming. “So this year has been really tough on them, because, again, they’re not in contact with anyone.”

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Special Olympics has hosted numerous virtual events to try to help fill the gap — and has seen success — but that’s an imperfect solution. For one thing, Short said only about 25-30% of Wyoming athletes have internet access.

The organization has been able to host in-person competitions for individual events like bowling, though in much smaller numbers. Instead of the usual 600 bowlers, for instance, there were about 40, Short said. Special Olympics Wyoming has been focusing more on the individual sports, such as bocce, and is looking at softball equipment. And there’s been a focus on proper masking and other COVID-related precautions.

“When we do come back, obviously … the whole event will look different,” Short said.

She praised the efforts of coaches and volunteers to keep activities going through the pandemic — and also those who have helped support the organization and athletes financially. The pandemic forced Special Olympics Wyoming to alter its fundraisers; for instance, its annual Festival of Trees — which typically draws 300-400 people and serves as the largest fundraising event of the year — changed to a display at a Casper mall and a two-week auction. But Short said the organization still raised $50,000, thanks to people coming together.

“Without our sponsors, without our law enforcement officers, we really can’t reach the community without their help,” she added. “So I thought that was great.”



Beards and jumps

Officers and deputies around the state are now hoping to give Special Olympics Wyoming another boost through the “Donate to Insulate” competition. Short noted the event isn’t limited to beards, with a couple female officers joining in.

“We can’t forget about them; they are growing something,” Short laughed. “I don’t know what, but we’ll measure whatever they want to grow — leg hair, whatever.”

Within the all-male Powell police force, there are a variety of beards being grown.

“You have the chinstrap beard. You have the Grizzly Adams beard. You have the Joe Dirt beard,” Officer Sapp explained, “and then you have guys that, you know, they just have the goatee, because none of the sides really grow in.”

There are some limits, though, as the department still requires its officers to maintain a professional appearance. And a mandatory shave will arrive in March.

“It is always a little disappointing to go back to normal,” Koritnik said.

When he’s asked why officers can’t wear a beard the rest of the time, Koritnik jokes that “it only looks professional for two months out of the year.”

Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt took some persuading when the department first joined the “Donate to Insulate” campaign a few years ago — and he rejected a request to allow the beard-growing to start in November. However, Eckerdt has been willing to bend the policies to allow the facial hair for a couple of the coldest months of the year to benefit the community event.

“First off, it’s a good cause ... and it’s one of those things that we all enjoy,” he said. The chief was one of this year’s participants, though he decided to shave last week ahead of some legislative meetings.

Although the department’s beard-growing competition ends Monday, March 1, donors can contribute to Special Olympics Wyoming at any time — and the local fundraising efforts will soon continue with Jackalope Jumps. Brave Wyomingites will raise funds for athletes by volunteering to get doused with freezing water; a jump in Cody is set for April 16, with another Powell event to be scheduled that same month.