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People leaving the water after the 2022 Westfield Polar Plunger.
Reminder Publishing file photo

WARE — Splish! Splash! Brr! March is generally a little early to swim in Massachusetts, but on Saturday, March 16, people will run, jump and dive into Beaver Lake in Ware. Rather than simply being cold-water enthusiasts, they are participating in the 2024 Ware Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Massachusetts.

“I, personally, have hosted a small Polar Plunge event for the past five years, and prior to that I participated in other community’s plunges,” said Ware police officer and school resource officer Jeannine Bonnayer. This is the first year she has organized a community-wide event.

Participants will gather at 11 a.m. for pre-plunge activities at West Beach, located on Beach Road. She said West Beach “offers a larger parking area and beach access into the frigid waters.” At some point between noon and 12:15 p.m., Bonnayer said, people will plunge into the lake. According to lakemonster.com, the water temperature is expected to be between 35 and 40 degrees.

For a few months before the plunge, participants raise money for Special Olympics Massachusetts, with a goal of at least $100 per person. As of press time, $570 of the Ware Polar Plunge’s $2,500 goal has been raised.

Stephanie Esposito, assistant vice president of development-fundraising and partner engagement, said the polar plunge is a significant fundraiser for Special Olympics Massachusetts. She said people participate in the fundraiser because “they believe everyone deserves to belong to an inclusive community.”

There are 19 official group plunges planned for this season. “We’re on the road to raising $1 million this winter,” Esposito said. As of press time, the organization had raised $717,509 toward this goal. Last year, the organization raised more than $900,000 with about 15 plunges.

More people are participating in the events, as well. This season, 3,200 people signed up for plunges, about 800 more than last year, Esposito said, adding, “We’ve just been breaking our own records,” each year.

The funds raised through the Polar Plunges pay for the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program. This program allows students with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their non-disabled peers to play together on sports teams. According to the Esposito, more than 65 schools in Massachusetts host a unified team. “It goes to making sure no child has to pay for the program,” Esposito said. School-based sprots program cost an average of about $700 in the United States, with many community-based youth programs in the same ballpark.

People who want to join a Polar Plunge can create teams to fundraise or participate by themselves. Plungers can also organize DIY Polar Plunges. These do-it-yourself, “grass roots” plunges were born out of the coronavirus pandemic but have developed into a way for more raise money and participate. “The plunge in Ware is a DIY Plunge,” Esposito said.

Special Olympics Massachusetts is making it easier for people to take the plunge, even if there is no body of water nearby. Bear Force One, named in reference to the Polar Plunge polar bear mascot, is a mobile pool that can be brought to schools and other locations so more people can participate in the plunges.

The Ware Police Department Penguins and members of the Monson Police Department will each take part in the Ware Polar Plunge, as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which raises money for Special Olympics and bills itself as “the largest law enforcement-focused charitable organization in the world.”

Bonnayer said, “I am very involved with other [Law Enforcement Torch Run] fundraising events, as well. I have stood outside in the cold collecting donations at “Cop on Top” events in Ware, as well as “Tip a Cop” events at local restaurants. I also participate in the annual “Cruiser Convoy” to Harvard University in June each year.”

Esposito said the relationship between law enforcement and Special Olympics is “the single greatest partnership we have. They really are all in on building community.” She said the Law Enforcement Torch Run has raised over $1 billion for the Special Olympics since it began in 1981. Esposito said that in addition to participating in fundraising events, law enforcement members also hand out medals and help carry the Flame of Hope torch into local competitions’ opening ceremonies.

For more information about the Ware Polar Plunge, visit tinyurl.com/yeyam7hu, or contact 508-485-0986 or polarplunge@specialolympicsma.org. For those who would like to donate to Special Olympics Massachusetts, checks can be sent to Special Olympics MA, Attn: Polar Plunge, 512 Forest St., Marlborough, MA 01752.

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