Although above-average temperatures are forecast for the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge on Jan. 27, it will still be chilly enough for those in beach attire at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County that day.
Just think how much colder it will feel after jumping into the frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay, which is exactly what 28 members of a dedicated team of brave souls called Shane’s Shiverers will do at the 22nd annual fundraiser for Special Olympics Maryland.
The team is led by Kevin Heerdt, a 60-year-old former hedge fund manager from Lutherville whose dedication to helping others is a major reason why Shane’s Shiverers has raised the third-most donations total — $18,015— by a team at the event this year.
It will be the third time for the team to test the icy waters, something Heerdt started in order to do “something fun and crazy” to cheer up a very ill Shane Lauer, the adopted son of Carissa Mortenson, the disabilities ministry pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, which Heerdt also attends.
Mortenson and Heerdt prefer the term “friends with disabilities” to describe those who face a wide range of physical and mental challenges, such as autism, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities.
"What the disabilities ministry has done for our congregation is transformative," said Ben Abell, GFC's executive pastor. "Our friends with disabilities have become completely integrated in the church and our congregation has fully embraced them. And it has been a catalyst for us becoming more diverse, culturally, racially and economically."
Lauer, who died in 2016 at age 24 after succumbing to Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), was one of four friends with disabilities adopted by Mortenson and her husband, Ben.
According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association website, “DMD is a genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. It is one of nine types of muscular dystrophy.”
It only affects boys and is always fatal, said Mortenson, who adopted Lauer when he was 14.
“He lived a good full 10 years with us,” she said, noting that the care her son received at Johns Hopkins Hospital was a key to his relatively good health during that span. “Near the end, Shane made the decision not to go back to the hospital. He didn’t want a feeding tube or a breathing tube. And for the last couple of months, the amazing staff from the Gilchrist pediatric hospice took great care of him and allowed him to be home.”
Continuing to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge, Heerdt said, is the perfect way to continue to remember the courage Lauer displayed throughout his life while dealing with the disease.
It was around that same time that Heerdt rounded up the first team to honor the Dulaney High School grad.
“Shane was very, very competitive, so I knew he would respond to something like this,” Heerdt said.
Mike Clark, 52, said that Heerdt approached him to get involved with Polar Bear Plunge by joining his team.
“We just like doing things for other people,” said Clark, a general contractor from Monkton. “It was all about doing something for Shane.”
Lauer’s keen competitive edge was honed by his association with Athletes Serving Athletes, a Lutherville-based nonprofit that connects volunteers with individuals who have disabilities in order to participate in an endurance event.
The volunteers, known as WingMen, push, pull or pedal the person with a disability to the finish line of whatever type of race they have entered, and Lauer was a fearless participant who often perched precariously on the front of his father’s speeding bike during races, Heerdt said.
That need for speed extended beyond a mere bicycle, however. Lauer was also smitten with fast cars.
To that end, Heerdt arranged for his buddy, not long before he died, to have a thrilling ride in a Maryland State Police car.
“Shane wanted to experience new things — especially car-related,” Heerdt said, noting he reached out to acting barrack Commander Sonya Clark to allow Lauer to participate in a ride-along in a state police vehicle. “What was supposed to be a half-hour ride, turned into over two hours of adventure for Shane. During the course of the ride, they came upon a red Ferrari whose driver obliged the officer’s request to allow Shane to have his picture taken in the driver’s seat.”
Having that same fearlessness in common with Lauer, Heerdt, who is an avid cyclist, rock climber, snowboarder and triathlete, said that he was nevertheless worried about his Polar Bear Plunge debut — with good reason.
“It was cold before we went in the water — very cold,” said Heerdt, whose sister, Linda Eyre, joined him as they walked toward the water. “But then we went in, and it was so cold it was actually painful. All I wanted to do was to get out.”
Still, he said, once he retreated to the beach, at his sister’s insistence, he then did an about-face and took a second plunge with her.
The memory of putting a broad smile on Shane’s face made the ordeal worthwhile enough to take a second and now a third icy bath.
After all, the Polar Bear Plunge benefits a cause that is easily relatable to what Carissa Mortenson, Heerdt and a slew of volunteers do at Grace Fellowship Church for their friends with disabilities.
In addition to taking in four children with varying degrees of disabilities, Mortenson assumed her current role after Danny O'Brien, the church's former pastor, approached her to grow the disabilities program, she said.
"He thought the church needed to be more compassionate and intentional in this area," she said. "We already had some people with disabilities at the church, so we started with growing a worship time specifically for teens and adults with disabilities and then just began working to help those with disabilities be able to fully participate in the life of the church."
Currently, Mortenson leads a variety of other groups, including helping kids attend Sunday school classes through the Buddy Ministry, which are programs for adults with disabilities known as the Beyond Programs and Rest Day. The latter is a a respite opportunity for caregivers of children with disabilities held four times per year for as many as 125 children, with a cadre of 175 volunteers spending three hours supervising the children during that span.
A Sunday service called Friends Worship, for adults with disabilities, is an event that Mortenson said is “ a unique and beautiful community.”
The message imparted makes it so, she said.
“They hear about God and how their gifts can be used in the world,” she said. “It’s great to have a safe place for them. They have people here who care about them and love them, and they do that right back. That’s why it’s such an important ministry.”
There are also monthly social events for adults with disabilities so that they can just "hang out" with their friends, do a Zumba class, watch a movie, paint or participate in other activities, Mortenson said. The church ministers to about 200 people with disabilities.
Moreover, the disabilities ministry helps to inform caregivers to take advantage of resources that might be available to them.
One of those resources, Mortenson said, helped her to land one of her daughters a job through the Towson Outreach Program at Towson University.
The daughter, Morgan, who has a moderate intellectual disability, works on the school’s campus and loves her job, her mother said.
Morgan is also playing basketball in the Special Olympics, so the efforts of Shane’s Shiverers will come full circle when they take the plunge on Saturday.
“For Kevin and the team to continue doing this is something Shane would be so proud of because of how his legacy is helping so many of his friends live life to its fullest,” Mortenson said.