SEASIDE HEIGHTS – Thousands of supporters of the Special Olympics came out to enter the chilly surf off the borough’s ocean front. They were freezing for a reason and that was to support a good cause and have some fun along the way.
The cool Feb. 22 event provided a warm reception for plungers who are considered to be the heroes and heroines of the day and who enter the ocean for an icy dip, many in colorful costumes, to raise money pledged through sponsorship from supporters.
The event beat its previous records, raising about $2.5 million for Special Olympics New Jersey.
Some plunge as individuals or as families while others form teams all in the cause of supporting the Special Olympics organization.
Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz said “the borough has been hosting this for a number of years. It is for a great cause and it shows the generosity of those involved and who donate to the plungers. I’m very part that we are a part of it.”
“There are thousands of people who come out to Seaside Heights for it and it is one of the biggest events we host. It comes with a big spirit. In my mind it also helps kick off the spring season,” Vaz said.
“We have the Polar Bear Plunge and then we host the Ocean County St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 7 at noon. Before we know it we’ll be hosting the Easter Egg hunt and the Easter promenade on our boardwalk,” the mayor added.
To assure security within the large crowd the borough’s police department and members of the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department were also there in force.
The top five plunge teams ranked to the amount of funds they raised included 2nd Avenue Freeze Out, Bayshore Shrinky Dinks, NJ Knights of Columbus Polar Penguins and Cat Crew.
The top team, the Little Silver Crocs had raised $97,947 as of Feb. 21, a day prior to the plunge. This year’s plunge had special significance for the team’s captain, Mike Laverty, as it marked his final plunge.
“I’ve plunged for Special Olympics since 2004. I got started because I have two developmentally and physically disabled children of my own – Tim (37), and Laura (30) – and I wanted to help thousands of people like them,” Laverty said. His goal was to hit $36,500 this year and to get $500,000 total for his 17-year plunge adventure.
Laverty said, “when they were young, they were able to participate in some local Special Olympics events. Unfortunately, their physical limitations now prevent them from being part of this wonderful organization. In fact, they’ll be moving into a group home a few months.”
He added that for the past 16 years, those who contributed to him “touched me like you can never imagine. You have helped me to reach supporters in all 50 states, and I’ve even received donations from another three countries – Canada, Bermuda and Namibia (South Africa). Your friendship and support for this cause is unbelievably humbling, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
“The 2020 Plunge will be my last, so I’ve set an aggressive personal fundraising goal. If I’m able to achieve that goal, my 17-year total will surpass $500,000. It would also be my highest total since 2014, so it’s most certainly a stretch,” Laverty said adding a half million total would be “an amazing achievement that would be for all of us, because I could never have done this alone. Just think of the out-pouring of love and support we have provided for such a deserving group of individuals.”
On their way to register the members of the Polar Penguins lined up for a group photo on the front steps of Our Lady of Perpetual “Help Church. Team Captain John Gazis, Brick, said “our team is from all over the state. It started in 2009 with one guy who said he wanted to plunge so I said, I’ll join you and we ended up with three of us.”
There were close to 60 Polar Penguins who took the plunge and who have raised a total of around $70,000. “We appreciate the church allowing us to park here and Simon’s Kitchen, for providing us lunch after the plunge,” Gazis said.
Jeremy Davis, director of digital marketing and communications for Special Olympics New Jersey said, “we have 8,000 plungers which is up from last year when we had around 7,500. I think what brings people back each year is that number one it is a good cause, it brings people together, its fun, exciting and makes for a nice winter activity.”