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Deputy finishes cross-state run for fallen police officers

Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Jun 8, 2018 at 8:00 AM

WEST OLIVE — Although Matt Garbarino describes himself as an average runner, he accomplished something extraordinary Thursday — completing a 160-mile run across Michigan to honor law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty.

Garbarino, a Byron Center resident who does marathons, triathlons and weightlifting, is a volunteer reserve deputy for the Kent County Sheriff's Office.

Starting Monday in Pontiac, Garbarino ran 40 miles each day, carrying a “Thin Blue Line” American flag the entire way. That flag represents solidarity for police officers who protect the public from harm, but especially those who have been killed while trying to fulfill that calling.

When Garbarino crossed a fittingly blue finish line at the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office Protector Monument in West Olive on Thursday, several families of fallen law enforcement officers were there to greet him. Coldwater residents Kim and Wayne Haylett, who have been in contact with Garbarino since the beginning of his run across Michigan, hugged him and cried with him upon completion of his trek.

The Hayletts wore buttons with pictures of their daughter, Sarah Jones, who was killed in the line of duty as a sheriff's deputy in Bloomington, Indiana, in October 2008. Jones was struck by a 16-year-old driver while directing traffic at the scene of a crash.

"I thought about Sarah a lot this week," Garbarino told the Hayletts at the finish line. "In those quiet moments of the run, I just felt like I was being pushed with inspiration. At the end of the day, I ran 160 miles for this, but we can all do something, and I hope that inspires other people."

Related: See more photos at the “Run Across Michigan” gallery.

Although Garbarino's knees were swollen and he said he was in “excruciating pain,” he crossed the finish line wearing a giant smile. In order to keep running, he consumed 9,000 calories each day, including many mid-run Snickers bars. At the end of the third day, the Cascade and Ada Township fire departments met Garbarino with a giant ice bath to try and soothe his knees.

"Physically, I've been through a lot of pain, my knees were in excruciating pain all day today and I was really struggling," he said. "But every time I got bogged down, I remembered what I was doing this for. These people have lost somebody and they have to live with it.

"The heat was pretty brutal and some headwinds made holding that flag tough, but my pain doesn't matter,” he added. “I'm going to go home and recover, and my life will go on as normal. A lot of people's don't."

Kim Haylett knows that kind of pain all too well.

"Sarah's still our first thought when we wake up in the morning and our last thought at night," she said. "This year is 10 years since she was killed, and we're so amazed at all the people she inspires. We don't want any law enforcement officer to be forgotten, and we couldn't be more honored that (Garbarino) did this. It lifts us up."

Throughout Garbarino's cross-state run, he was joined by a rotating cast of sheriff's offices and police departments leading the way on the road so he was safe. Each day, his own Kent County Sheriff's Office trailed the caravan with one of their own cruisers. Garbarino said that while he can't speak for the rest of the country, he saw a staggering amount of support for law enforcement from Michiganders along the way.

Garbarino's mother, Fran Rini, said she was nervous when her son decided to plan for this journey, but his training and careful coaching helped dissuade those thoughts.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “It’s something on his bucket list, and he’s done it.”

Rini also had high praise for the police officers who helped along the way.

“Oh my God, in every county,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”

As he crossed the finish line, Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker handed Garbarino a challenge coin, which is a large coin with the county's seal on it. The coin is given out as an honor to those who have accomplished a great task.

Along his route, Garbarino has acquired several challenge coins from various counties, including one given to him by the family of Larry Nehasil, a Livonia Police Department officer who was shot in 2011. Garbarino carried Nehasil's coin and other mementos from fallen officers' families across the finish line before being tended to by the American Red Cross.

Garbarino ran primarily to raise awareness of the 580 law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty in America, but also to raise money for the Michigan chapter of the Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.). As of Thursday night, he has raised nearly $6,000 for the charity. Donations are still accepted at gofundme.com/mirun.

"If you step up and try to make a difference, anybody can be a hero. It doesn't have to be at this scale," Garbarino said. "Hopefully, I've been able to raise awareness for something much bigger than me."

Grand Haven Tribune reporter Becky Vargo contributed to this report.

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