For three years, SEIU Local 200United members from Liverpool Transportation have done something most of us shake ours head at. On December 7, 2014, they participated in the Polar Plunge at Oneida Shores county park north of Syracuse. But it wasn’t for kicks—those who dive into Oneida Lake’s icy waters raise funds for the Special Olympics.
“As bus drivers and monitors, we have daily contact with special needs students, so we thought, what the heck?” said Dawn Ehman, a bus driver for the Liverpool Central School District and president of the unit. The Liverpool plungers, wearing blue and orange knitted scarves that had been sold as fundraisers for the Polar Plunge, hit the water in honor of Dakota Finch, a 10th-grader at Liverpool High School.
Each year Ehman is a willing “plunger,” as they’re called, raising funds for the Special Olympics for the privilege of jumping into the lake. The nearly 20 participants representing Liverpool and Local 200United were among the 1,000 people who got wet to support Special Olympics New York, Central Region & Southern Tier.
The group gathered in front of Oneida Lake for a photo before entering the large tent to prepare for their adventure. A few spectators turned into a crowd at the lakeshore and watched as a crew of wetsuit-clad men broke up and removed the ice that had formed on the water’s chilly surface. Even more friends and family members stood alongside the barricades that lined both sides of a sandy, but cold, path that led to the water. After announcements and a warmup led by fitness instructors, a roar grew inside the tent. The Special Olympians led the short walk to the lake, many of them in swimsuits, many of them shivering but all of them smiling.
“The kids go out of the tent, into the water, and we follow,” said Ehman. They followed after waiting a good 10, cold minutes for those in front to plunge and then get the heck out of the water. “It feels like pins and needles in your feet,” Ehman said, describing the effects of the frigid lake. “You feel it when you first get in, but your adrenaline is pumping. We probably spend two minutes at most in the water.”
Despite conditions that may scare some folks away, Ehman reported never having trouble finding co-workers, friends and family to take the plunge. “It’s not really difficult to recruit; it’s all about our kids.”
When the plungers exited the water—some excited, some shivering, some screaming their discomfort—they quickly donned warm clothes, covered up in blankets and reveled in their achievement. When it was all over, the Liverpool group had raised several thousand dollars and began making plans for the December 2015 event.
“How cold it is doesn’t matter to us,” Ehman said. “We’re going to go and have a good time and freeze, and that’s OK.”