By TRAVIS MORSE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — BENTON — More than 340 people jumped into the freezing waters of Rend Lake Saturday as part of the 14th annual Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge.
The event, which took place at South Sandusky Beach in Benton, raised an estimated $56,500 for Special Olympics athletes in the Southern Illinois region.
Organizers say funding from the Polar Plunge helps pay for facility costs, athlete awards, T-shirts for volunteers, food and administrative expenses.
“It's such a huge fundraiser,” said Rhonda Knight, director of the Special Olympics Illinois for Area 14. “It pays for more than half of our program here locally.”
Most of the Plungers Saturday belonged to teams and many came dressed in different costumes.
To be a Plunger, participants had to collect a minimum of $75 in donations. Last year's event had 301 Plungers who raised more than $59,000.
During Saturday's event, team members waded into Rend Lake and stayed in the cold water for as long as they could before running back out to take a heated shower.
Safety divers were on hand in the water to provide assistance if needed. They also inspected the beach prior to the Plunge.
“We get here before everybody and we kind of sweep the beach, like the area where they're plunging, (to) make sure there's no rocks or sticks,” said safety diver Mark McManaway, a member of the Rend Lake Search and Rescue Team.
A number of Plungers Saturday had a personal connection to the Special Olympics.
Marsha Smart, a member of the West Frankfort Red Birds team, is a functional special education teacher and a Special Olympics coach. She said she knows how important the Special Olympics program is for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“I see how much they enjoy it and how hard they work and train,” Smart said. “It's so nice that those events are available for the kids, and then this helps keep it cost-free for our kids, which is huge.”
Plunger Melissa Dowdy, a member of the Chilly Dogs team from Harrisburg, said she has a son with severe autism who takes part in the Special Olympics. The program, she said, provides an essential service.
“It's very important for socialization and they learn so much,” Dowdy said.
Another team that participated Saturday was the JC Jets, an independent group of disabled Olympians based in Jefferson County.
Linda Austin, director of the JC Jets, said her group has been a part of the Polar Plunge for four years.
“It helps support us all (to) go to our events,” Austin said of the Plunge. “It pays for a lot of our activities as Special Olympics.”
But even though it's for a worthy cause, actually jumping into the cold water can be a bracing experience, said Barbara Burke, a volunteer with the JC Jets.
“Whatever body part is in the water goes completely numb,” Burke said.
For more information on the Plunge, visit www.plungeillinois.com or call Knight at 383-4400.