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It's cool to take plunge for charity

The Baltimore Sun

A crowd gathers on a beach in weather better suited for sledding. Everyone goofs off, dancing and snacking, until the appointed hour, when they strip off wool caps and ski jackets and rush - usually screaming - into the frigid waters.

They emerge shivering and wet. And their favorite charity gets a check.

A mad dash into winter water is a far cry from a ballroom gala, but it is an increasingly popular way to raise money. The Polar Bear Club at Coney Island has been taking a dip on New Year's Day for decades, but only in recent years has it turned the event into a charity moneymaker. The February Freeze in Virginia raises money for Habitat for Humanity; the Goose Bump Jump in Kent County helps the developmentally disabled.

There's a Passion Plunge, a Penguin Plunge and, for the first time, a Popsicle Plunge -scheduled for today on the shore of the Gunpowder River in eastern Baltimore County.

"We didn't want to have the same old fundraiser- a casino night or black-tie dinner," said Hal Ashman, president of the Marshy Point Nature Center Council, beneficiary of today's fundraiser.

The idea of racing into near-freezing water might initially sound crazy - something a college kid does on a dare. But it has the advantage of having broad-based appeal, organizers and marketing experts say, attracting a more diverse crowd than the standard 5K run, golf outing or expensive dinner.

Greg Shipley, the longtime Maryland State Police spokesman, co-founded what is perhaps the biggest such event in the area, the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Jumping into the Chesapeake Bay in January, he explains, is "one of those things you can say, 'I did that.'"

It's also the kind of adventure that a teenager can enjoy with a parent and then be teased about by relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. It's enjoyable for young children, who like all the cheering. It's a bonding experience for groups like bowling leagues and Bible classes, who collectively say, "If you will, I will."

And they can be a magnet for adrenaline junkies, says Hank Boyd, a Tyser Teaching Fellow at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"They're seeking a 'wow,'" says Boyd, who researches the effects of persuasion and advertising. "They're a little risky. But you can also say, 'It's for a good cause.'"

The practice of bathing in forbiddingly cold water dates back hundreds of years, according to journals and other published reports. Russians and Scandinavians often follow the trip into icy water by roasting in saunas. In northern China, swimming in the Songua River attracts several thousand people each winter. New Year's Day plunges have also become a tradition from Newport, R.I., to Boulder, Colo.

The annual New Year's Day dip by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club attracts thousands to the boardwalk there. The organization, founded in 1903, began using the event three years ago to help raise money for a summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses.

"It's a celebration of life," says club President Louis Scarcella.

You can't swim when the water temperature is hovering around freezing, says Scarcella, but the act of immersing yourself into very cold water has health benefits, he and others stress.

"It raises your immune system and promotes healing," he says. "We have members who swear that they haven't had a cold in 25 years."

It also causes the endorphins to kick in, Scarcella says, adding: "You get this beautiful feeling of well-being."

If plungers heed warnings to "step in and step out," they shouldn't be in danger of hypothermia or water-related injury, says Dr. Nelson Tang, head of special operations in the department of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But event organizers still need to prepare for the possibility, along with other medical issues that arise at any high-attendance event, such as minor bumps and bruises, trips and falls, Tang said. For the Polar Bear Plunge, Johns Hopkins sends about 15 emergency room doctors and nurses, and the state police and Anne Arundel County Fire Department also provide medical personnel, including a team of 50 rescue divers who are in the water for the duration of the plunge.

"There has to be an organized medical plan in place," Tang said.

Ashman has been in the frigid water of the Patapsco River midwinter. But, the owner of Extreme Watersports acknowledges, it was an accident. He fell.

Modeled after the Polar Bear Plunge, the idea of daring people to jump into the Gunpowder River to benefit the nature center has taken off, Ashman says.

With 100 people registered in advance for the first Popsicle Plunge today at Gunpowder Falls State Park, the event is on track to raise several thousand dollars for the nature center, which opened in 2000 and is seeking contributions for a new educational wing, Ashman says.

Although all fifth-graders in the county spend a day at the center as part of their environmental science lessons, Ashman says that many people don't realize the center exists.

"Awareness of the nature center is a big piece of this event," says Ashman.

Like the Polar Bear Plunge, the Popsicle Plunge will feature music and food, a place to get warm, inflatable slides and crafts for children, who will also be invited to participate in the Puddle Plunge, Ashman said.

Teacher and naturalist Tom Melito and his 8 year-old son, Trevor, are signed up.

"I'm going to throw on some goofy clothes and go," Melito says. "It's something you have to do once in your life."

In Western Maryland, the Hooley Plunge is another spin-off of the Polar Bear Plunge and its cousin, the Deep Creek Dunk. They all benefit the Special Olympics.

The Kent Center, which offers programs and housing for developmentally disabled adults on the Eastern Shore, hosted the Goose Bump Jump into the Bay before Thanksgiving. And the Chesapeake Climate Action Network held its "Keep Winter Cold" plunge last month at Sandy Point State Park.

In the nonprofit world, you don't begrudge any charity that tries to duplicate a fundraiser you've found to be successful, says Tom Schniedwind, the co-founder of the Polar Bear Plunge held each January near the Bay Bridge.

"We plagiarized - with permission - the idea from the Delaware State Police and Special Olympics up there," he says.

But he says they work hard to make each one more exciting than the last.

They've had skydiving Elvis impersonators, big-name restaurant chains as food vendors, local celebrities, all-night, hourly pre-plunge "dips." And this year, for the 11th annual event, they hosted pig races as part of the "Bluster on the Bay Winter Festival."

The plunge drew an estimated 15,000 spectators and 7,400 plungers, many of them wearing costumes more outlandish than the next. It raised $2.2 million for the charity.

"Jumping into cold water gets old after a while," Schniedwind says. "I don't want people to say, 'I've been there, done that.' What they're buying with their $50 is the whole experience."

The beauty of it, says Schniedwind, is that the Special Olympics athletes are able to participate, too, offering the crowds a lesson in the value of inclusion in a "nonthreatening, non-shove-it-down-your-throat way."

And while their event is no longer the only winter water fundraiser in the state, Shipley says they still boast being the biggest and oldest.

"We hope people will keep us in mind," he says, "and do the granddaddy of them all."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

If you go

The Popsicle Plunge is today at the Hammerman area of Gunpowder Falls State Park.

Entertainment and registration begins at noon.

The race into the icy water is at 2 p.m.

Information: 410-887-2817 or www.marshypoint.org.

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