By: Pamela Macek
In a day when stories of division between law enforcement and communities are routinely heard, a different story is being told in Roxbury Township. For the fourth straight year, the Roxbury Unity Tour, which is much more than a bike ride, will be taking place at Horseshoe Lake Park, Succasunna.
The Unity Tour event was created to allow the community to unite with their local police department to show support through solidarity in honor of police officers that have fallen in the line of duty. This event is also to show support for the National Police Unity Tour that takes place every year, with the ride starting in New Jersey and ending in Washington D.C. The mission of the Police Unity Tour is to raise awareness of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty and to raise funds for the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial and Museum.
Heather Roddy, the Unity Tour event coordinator and the person who began the project with her students, has been very familiar with the National Police Unity Tour for years. Her own husband, an officer with the Hanover Police dept., has participated numerous times in the ride to Washington D.C. One year, when Roddy was there, showing her support, a very moving experience took place. She shared, “I was watching the part of the ceremony where roses are handed to the wives of fallen police officers. Seeing the camaraderie amongst everyone was so beautiful. Then a woman started talking to me. I turned to her, and as we’re chatting she says, ‘Yeah, I received my first rose last year.’ It took my breath away. You just don’t forget those moments.”
Roddy shared how the Roxbury Unity Tour began. “I was in my Civics class, which is a project-based program. The kids in my class were encouraged to be innovative and to research the community and develop ideas where there was a need. I had already done a Pet Adoption Day program and wanted the students to do something different than the person sitting next to them. Well, one of the little girls in my class is the daughter of a state trooper, and I asked her to go back and ask her parents about her doing this unity tour as her project. This is a very sensitive subject and I wanted to make sure they thought it was appropriate. The parents felt it was a great idea, and so from there we developed the program and that spring we launched the Unity Tour.”
When asking Roddy why she chose to develop this project with the 7th and 8th grade students, she shared, “I feel like it’s the most untapped resource in the community. Those kids would want to get out there, and they want to do something. They’re powerful when they get together and combine forces. They are absolutely unstoppable.”
Realizing the students cannot do this tour on their own, Roddy knew just who to connect them with. Reaching out to Roxbury’s Chief of Police, Marc Palanchi, she shared her ideas about the tour, explaining that the students would be raising money to help their local police officers pay for the cost to participate in the National Police Unity Tour. “Literally, his words were, ‘You just tell me where and when and we’ll be there.’” And that is what they did.
The Unity Tour’s collaboration goes beyond the students’ and police department’s joint efforts. School staff, friends, family all work together to support the Tour, as well as local organizations and businesses like the Rotary Club, who will be donating ice cream, and Shop Rite, who has donated water each year. To help strengthen the relationships between the community and local law enforcement, there is a “Meet and Greet” event held the night before the Unity Tour. Children come to the middle school to drop off their bikes and can then mingle with the police officers participating in the Unity Tour, while enjoying sandwiches, pastries and refreshments served and donated by local businesses.
“What’s really nice is that children with hardship situations that do not have a bicycle but wish to participate can. That is due to the generosity of Marty’s Bikes. Marty and his sons actually come and donate bikes and helmets for the day. He is a very kind, generous, wonderful man.”
The Unity Tour is routinely scheduled as close to the 24th of May as possible, as that is when the National Police Unity Tour is held. It is a lot of fun, with new ideas, like a DJ and speakers, being added each year to make the entire day a wholesome, positive experience, resulting in strong positive relationships being forged between the local community and their police officers. Since it is a student-based program, Roddy will be helping students who are giving speeches to prepare themselves for the event. This year, there will be twin sisters not only singing the National Anthem at the Roxbury Unity Tour, but these 8th grade girls will also be sending off the officers in May at the National Police Unity Tour, in Florham Park.
Roddy hopes that with effective education and awareness made to the public, the Roxbury Unity Tour will be the first of many school-based programs like it, that take place every spring, in every community across the nation. At a time when the social strain continues to escalate in the area of community and law enforcement relations, an event like the Roxbury Unity Tour is a powerful remedy to help bring unity to us all.