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A true SOMO volunteer: Mark Priebe

Sargent Mark Priebe poses for a photo with his two children in front of motorcycles and semi-trucks

This post was written by SOMO Volunteer Biographer, Robert Cole

When Mark Priebe first began working as a police officer, he didn’t realize how important it would be to honor local Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) athletes.

Since then, the 21-year veteran of the Springfield Police Department has made Special Olympics a genuine part of his life plan. For him, it’s about connecting with people.

“It’s near and dear to my heart,” Priebe said, “whether it is volunteering or helping raise money.”

Priebe poses for a photo with an athlete during the 2019 Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg before the World Games in Abu Dhabi.

Priebe has been a strong supporter of the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR), a key project in support of Special Olympics. It was founded by the Missouri Police Chiefs Association 34 years ago and is the organization’s largest grass-roots fundraising program in the state.

While it may sound like a single run, it is actually an organization of law enforcement agencies in Missouri (136 agencies in 2020) that raise money and volunteer for Special Olympics Missouri throughout the year.

“Mark selflessly gives his time to help, whether it be helping organize events like Tip-A-Cops and Polar Plunges or helping organize medal presentations and set-up crews for state events,” said Crystal Schuster, development director for Special Olympics Missouri in Jefferson City. “He is a vital part of our LETR family.”

Special Olympics is one of the world’s largest sports organizations, with more than 6 million athletes involved in sports training and competition in more than 170 countries. The athletes, who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, compete in 32 Olympic-type sports and are supported by nearly 1.2 million volunteers. In Missouri, the organization serves nearly 17,000 athletes competing in 16 sports.

By supporting these athletes, the group aims to build community, increase confidence, improve physical and mental health, and teach them how to live independently.

Priebe (center) gives direction to his fellow law enforcement officers during the 2015 Final Leg before the State Summer Games in Springfield.

Priebe said that simply being around individuals with intellectual disabilities gives him a different perspective.

“I saw their enthusiasm and their attitudes of love for each other and for sportsmanship,” he said. “That’s what has kept me going and putting myself out there.”

At a ceremony in December 2015, Priebe was named the “Outstanding Unsung Hero in Region 3” by the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Missouri. Just last year, he was awarded the John Michael Letz Unsung Hero award – the top award an LETR officer can receive in the state of Missouri.

In 2019, Priebe was named the Missouri representative for the Final Leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. For 10 days, Priebe, along with officers and Special Olympics athletes from other countries, carried the Flame of Hope through various cities and into the Opening Ceremony of the games spreading the message of sports, joy, and inclusion.

Despite being surrounded by the glitz and glamor of the world’s richest city, Priebe’s focus was on the athletes.

“When you see Special Olympic athletes from all over the world, it really opens your eyes,” he said. “Some of their families can’t afford to give them anything. But it’s the positivity they have when they receive their medals. Then they all congratulate one another with high fives.”

The recognition of Priebe’s importance to Springfield-area communities was never more evident than in June 2020. After he suffered a malicious attack by an individual in a car at the front of the Springfield Police Station, emergency surgery was required to stabilize his spine, one of many injuries he sustained.

The Springfield Police Officer’s Association established two locations for cash and check donations in support of Priebe’s recovery and his family. A GoFundMe page was set up by Nathan Engelking and two other individuals, which by the following afternoon had collected more than $58,000 in donations. The most recent count stated that more than $136,000 had been collected, which also is in support of Priebe’s wife Heather, who has been undergoing treatments for lymphoma since 2019.

After surgery, Priebe spent more than two months at a Colorado rehabilitation center. When he returned to his Republic home on Sept. 10, many in the town gathered on Highway 174 waving and holding signs calling him a “hometown hero.” His Special Olympics Missouri family was there to cheer him on as well.

Schuster said that Special Olympic athletes light up when they see Priebe because he has taken the time to befriend them, and make them feel like they are important.

“Mark is one of the most kind, generous, selfless men I know, and I am so proud to call him my friend,” Schuster said. “My life has changed because of Mark, and I know that I am not alone in saying that.”

Connor Priebe pushes Mark during the Priebe Strong 1062 Race in October 2020.
Photo courtesy of “Whee Are Springers”

Shortly after Priebe returned from Colorado, community organizers planned the Priebe Strong 1062 Race, a fun run, 5k, 10k, half-marathon, all rolled into one. More than 700 people participated and they raised $30,000 for the family.

In an interview with KY3, race organizer Anne Buchanan said, “I know I needed to do something for him and running is what I know to do.”

Despite the bills piling up and the need to outfit their home to make it accessible for Priebe, their family, including their son, Connor, and daughter, Chloe, made a decision to donate a portion of the proceeds collected on their behalf over the past few months to something besides themselves.

“We knew it would be important to put that money into Special Olympics Missouri” he said. “It strengthens our community.”