The gathering was small but intimate. Squad cars nearly outnumbered the well-wishing poster boards and not even the sweltering heat could dampen the enthusiasm.

“We’re going to Bismark in North Dakota,” said Brandon Lang. “I’ve never been to North Dakota.”

The send-off party at the Lakeland Police Department was full of smiles. The officers and other police staff gathered to show even more support for a group of Special Olympics softball players destined for the national championship tournament – thanks to their donations.

“It is so special,” said Lang. They got it for us just in the nick of time.”

A few weeks ago, Lang and fellow Lakeland Eagles softball teammate Brandon Petterson made a presentation to the LPD. The team needed $15,000 to get to the tournament in North Dakota. They were a little bit short.

“I didn’t want to let my team down,” said Petterson.

The officers opened their wallets and gave generously. So did other law enforcement agencies, including the LPD Chaplaincy Board, LPD Citizens Academy Alumni and Polk County Fraternal Order of Police. In all, $1,600 was raised. It was enough to close the gap and send the Eagles on their trip.

“How can your heart not go out to these guys and gals and what they do every day and the challenges they face and how they overcome them every day?” said Chief Larry Giddens. “It’s a feel-good story and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

For many of the players, the trip would be their first time on an airplane. The opportunity to make a dream come true wasn’t lost on the law enforcement officers.

“It just shows how much we support and love these kids,” said Captain Rick Taylor. “They’re part of our family.”

The tournament lasts all weekend. The Eagles will return to Polk County on Monday and fly through the path of the solar eclipse while on the way to Florida.

“Win or lose, they’re going to have a great time and they’re always going to remember this and I’m glad the Lakeland Police Department was a part of it.,” said Giddens.