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Freezin’ for a reason: More than 500 take the polar plunge in Joliet

Cold waters did not deter more than 500 participants from freezin’ for a reason.

Mostly sunny skies and 40-degree temperatures set the scene for people taking a dip into Leisure Lake Saturday, March 10 during Illinois Special Olympics’ seventh annual Joliet Polar Plunge.

The event, by design, aimed to raise money for Illinois Special Olympics programming, and the board decides how the funding is used.

“It’s just something that we embrace a great deal,” said Joe Pena, an ambassador for the Law Enforcement Torch Run and Special Olympics Illinois. “We have school districts; we have businesses; we have municipalities; [we have] police departments. It’s just such a wide variety.

More than $116,000 was raised through the Joliet Polar Plunge this time around, according to Special Olympics Illinois. The cutoff for post-event donations is 11 p.m. April 27.

“It’s been such a successful venture for Special Olympics and the [Law Enforcement] Torch Run that our hope and expectation at the end of the day [is to raise] a million dollars on plunges, alone,” Pena said.

Wading through the icy waters was Oak Forest’s David Wahlberg. When asked to describe his experience of taking the Joliet Polar Plunge, he said in one word: cold.

“There was a lot of mental preparation and a lot of arguing with myself to get in, but it’s not so bad,” he said.

The Polar Plunge did not serve as a first for Wahlberg.

“It was a good time,” he said. “I have a lot of memories from the first one. I’m excited for next year.”

Wahlberg said taking the Joliet Polar Plunge was worth it.

“It helps participants [of Special Olympics Illinois] to get uniforms,” he said. “It’s a great organization. I’m happy to support it.”

Similar events have been held in recent weeks across the state.

“The excitement, the fun is all present,” Pena said. “I think one of the most significant things that I can say about this event is that it brings people together for a good time.”

Pena said Illinois Special Olympics plans to hold their polar plunges all throughout the year.

Melissa Levin, of Plainfield, was motivated to take a dip into the icy waters to support Illinois Special Olympics.

“It was awesome,” she said. “I love raising money for the kids. My friend, Jessica, she’s a coach, and she got me into the plunge.”

This time was Levin’s third occasion in which she’s decided to take the polar plunge. She said she came ready to brave the cold waters this time around more so than in years past.

“The first year, [I prepared] not so much,” she said. “Last year, I did.”

Levin, joined by 26 other people, made up one of the many teams on hand for the Joliet Polar Plunge.

“We got more people on our team,” she said. “Last year, we had 10.”

Levin said the Joliet Polar Plunge’s popularity is easy to pin point.

“It’s because they get to help an organization with an activity to take part in,” she said.

Ryan Leifker, of Oak Lawn, said the moment he took to a dip into the icy waters is indescribable.

“I had to get a shirt and towel to not get as cold,” he said.

This year was Leifker’s first time participating in the event. He took the Joliet Polar Plunge alongside a 20-member team made up by Will County Sherriff’s Department staff.

Leifker said supporting Special Olympics Illinois is important to him.

“I work for a park district, and we have a special recreation program,” he said. “That’s why I jumped.”

Miriam Neugebauer, joined by two special education teachers from Plainfield School District 202, was on hand trying to keep warm after having taken a dip into the icy waters.

“I love raising money Special Olympics,” she said.

The cause, Neugebauer said, is very personal for her.

“I have students who participate in Special Olympics, and I do it for them,” she said, noting that is a school social worker. “We’ll do anything for students, even jumping into cold water and freezing our feet.”

Neugebauer said she and her team intend to take the polar plunge next year.

“We’re already talking about it,” she said. “We’re discussing what our costumes will be.”


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