After a week filled with winter storms and freezing temperatures, the last thing most people want to do this weekend is jump into a chilly lake.
But that’s exactly what a group of O’Fallon City employees are planning to do.
The O’Fallon Police Department and other city employees will team up with the Lake Saint Louis and Wentzville Police Departments, along with other volunteers this Saturday for the Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge.
This year’s event at the Lake Saint Louis Community Association kicks off at 1 p.m. with a parade of plungers in costumes. After participants dive into the frigid Lake Sainte Louise, they are invited to an after-party at the Wentzville UAW Hall, where they can warm up and eat before awards are announced.
All plungers must raise at least $75 to participate. All money raised throughout the event is donated to the Special Olympics to allow athletes to compete in different sporting events. Participants who raise more than the $75 are rewarded with prizes, including towels and shirts.
Awards are also given to the top money-raising police department, top school group and the best costume.
Local law enforcement agencies have helped raise money for the athletes since 1985, when the Missouri Police Chief’s Association made the Special Olympics their charity of choice.
The original fundraiser for Special Olympics was a 33-mile run from Columbia to Jefferson City, but for the past 25 years the cause has grown to include several benefits, including the Polar Bear Plunge and trivia nights put on by local police departments.
“A complete array of events stemmed out from what law enforcement does to raise money,” O’Fallon Police Officer Jeff Cook said. “The Plunge has taken off as the signature event for the Special Olympics in Missouri.” The event that started with one plunge 14-years ago, has since grown to 13 plunges statewide.
For the past eight years the O’Fallon Police Department has joined the Lake Saint Louis Plunge.
Cook, who is the department’s coordinator with the Special Olympics, said he was inspired to become more involved with the Plunge, when he had the opportunity to attend the games and see how much the money helped and meant to the athletes’ families.
“There are a lot of places parents need to spend their money for children with special needs and often medical expenses come before sports and athletics,” he said. “The Special Olympics allows these kids to succeed, connect and feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Most Polar Bear Plunge participants choose a theme for their group and dress up to add to camaraderie and fun. In past years O’Fallon Plungers have dressed as rock stars, the Smurfs and Simpsons. This year, around 20 O’Fallon Plungers will take the icy dip as your favorite Star Wars characters.
“It let’s everyone come together as a team,” Cook said.
Ward 1 Councilman Bill Gardner, who will take his fourth plunge this year, said he will be dressed as Yoda on Saturday and is not worried about the cold.
“The first year I was a little nervous,” he said. “It’s not as bad as people think. The worst part is waiting in line and when you first exit the water.”
Gardner raised $500 for the Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge last year and said this year his goal is around $300.
He said supporting a good cause is worth braving the cold.
“I have a soft spot for kids, and I’ve seen what good this does, so I keep doing it,” he said.
O’Fallon Court Administrator Jeff Chapple, who will take his seventh plunge on Saturday agreed.
“I’ve seen the athletes and I know how much this support means to them,” he said.
Chapple, who plans to dress the part of Obi-Won Kenobi for the event, said he already met his goal of $2,000, and is now shooting for $2,500.
An experienced Plunger like Gardner, Chapple agreed freezing temperatures aren’t a concern because they help the body acclimate to the water.
“So the colder the better,” he said.
Cook said as of Monday when online registration closed, the event had 443 plungers signed up and $50,000 raised. He expects about 1,000 more people will show up to the event on Saturday.
Registration for the Plunge begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Community Assistance Building. Donations will still be accepted after the plunge. Those interested can make donations at O’Fallon City Hall or on the Special Olympics Web site.