On Sunday morning, Onondaga County Parks Director Bill Lansley and several of his co-workers ran into Oneida Lake in their suits.
Had they gone mad?
Lansley, along with Kim Hall, Nate Stevens, Bob Ellis and Meg Belovich, plus hundreds of others, were participants in the sixth annual Polar Plunge for Special Olympics New York (NYSO), a fundraising event at Oneida Shores that included live entertainment, prizes, face painting, hot chocolate and coffee from sponsor Dunkin Donuts and more, along with the signature dip in the chilly waters of Oneida Lake.
Three athletes from this area will be heading to South Korea to compete in the Special Olympic Games in January — Pae, of Ithaca, was born in South Korea; this will be her first time back. She will be joined by Kim from Rome and John from Cortland. We wish you luck!
So what inspired Lansley and his colleagues to take the plunge?
“We love the Special Olympics because of the great work that they do,” he said. “We hold some of their events at Highland Forest and throughout the county, so we showed our support in this as well as with the Games.”
The group decided to outfit themselves in their traditional work garb for the costume contest taking place before the plunge.
“You’re supposed to come in costume,” Lansley said. “We spend a lot of time in these suits every day, so it’s kind of appropriate. It’s what we do every day. We just wanted to be really different.”
And how did they feel after emerging from the lake into the rainy, 47-degree day?
“Cold,” Lansley said. “But not bad.”
It was worth it, he said, to support such a good cause. Through year-round sports training and athletic competition and other related programming for more than 3.5 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in more than 180 countries, Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The New York chapter was organized by Dorothy Buehring Phillips in 1969. Since that time, the organization has grown to become one of the largest sports programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities in the United States. In fact, NYSO is the largest Special Olympics chapter in the United States and the sixth largest chapter in the world.
“The thing with Special Olympics is that none of our athletes pay to play,” said NYSO Development Director Cassandra Rucker. “We’re entirely volunteer-driven and fundraiser-driven. In New York, we have 55,698 athletes, 30,000 volunteers and 50 staff, so we’re a very volunteer-driven organization. For our athletes, this is their community. It’s physical fitness. It’s friendship. When people meet our athletes, they can’t help but want to be a part of it.”
In addition, the athletes benefit from their participation in the organization for years to come.
“Our athletes are five times more likely to have a job because of Special Olympics training, not just the physical aspect, but the mentoring part, too,” Rucker said. “They turn around and find volunteering jobs throughout the community. Those are things that are the outcome of things like the Polar Plunge.”
The Plunge is part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, the police community’s effort to raise both money and awareness for Special Olympics. The year-round campaign includes golf outings, “Over the Edge” events in which law enforcement personnel rappel off the sides of high-rise buildings, “Law and Orders” in which they work with Applebee’s Restaurants as wait staff, runs and, of course, Polar Plunges.
“The law enforcement community put a lot into making this happen,” Rucker said. “They’ve raised more than a million dollars for our athletes.”
In addition to the law enforcement community, everyday volunteers and contributors help support the mission of the NYSO. This year’s Polar Plunge was successful in part because past participants helped spread the word and draw more interest.
“Last year we had 320 [plungers],” Rucker said. “This year we had more than 600. We’re at over $80,000. Last year we raised around $60,000.”
Rucker said planning has already begun for next year’s event in order to capitalize on this year’s success.
“The growth we’ve seen and the participation this year will help generate that much more next year. People are more interested in it. We’re going to keep building on that. We did that this year,” she said. “Next year, we want to double it again. We’re already working on that. We’re meeting with the tent companies and with Onondaga County Parks, and the county parks are so generous to let us come and have this here, but we’re meeting with them already to plan for next year’s event to put the best foot forward.”
So if you’re looking for a memorable way to spend a Sunday, start thinking about it. Next year’s Polar Plunge will likely be the first Sunday in December, 2013.
“There are so many Sunday mornings you just don’t remember throughout the course of the year. This is something you never forget,” Rucker said. “Of all the hundreds of people I talked to, some of them said they did it because they’d done it before, either when they went to college or something else. But it made them feel connected to something bigger than themselves.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.