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Oak Park schools emerge as top fundraiser during Special Olympics Polar Plunge

Pioneer Press Newspapers - 2/26/2020

Feb. 25--With temperatures inching past the 50-degree mark and the sun blazing in blue skies overhead, Sunday's Polar Plunge near Northwestern University in Evanston didn't feel quite polar-like.

Until, of course, you hit the water.

Hundreds of plungers, dressed in everything from Speedos to dinosaur suits, braved the still icy-cold waters of Lake Michigan to take part in the 2020 Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge benefiting Special Olympics Illinois.

The plunge, which raised more than $107,000 as of Monday afternoon, drew suburban first responders, elementary and high school students, family members and supporters of Special Olympics to Chicago'sNorth Beach for the annual event.

Dressed in gray sweats and paying homage to Rocky Balboa, more than 100 representatives of Oak Park schools hit the water and emerged as the event's top fundraising team, beating out rival Lyons Township High School.

It was a goal the team had set out to achieve, said Tim McDonald, a physical education teacher with Oak Park District 97.

"We've almost doubled what Lyons Township raised," McDonald said proudly.

As of Monday afternoon, the Oak Park-River Forest High School and District 97 team had raised just over $43,700 after setting a goal of $35,000. Lyons Township High School raised more than $22,500, putting it in second place for fundraising.

McDonald credited a special "polar plunge training video" the team created and an active social media campaign for the outpouring of donations.

"We made this Rocky-themed video because he's an underdog and we wanted to embrace that underdog status," he said. "We rode that theme."

In fact, the song "Eye of the Tiger," the theme song of "Rocky III," played over loud speakers on the beach as members of the Oak Park team ran toward the water.

Five-year-old Sam Sakellaris, son of Nick Sakellaris, a third grade teacher at Washington Irving School in Oak Park, helped open the event by reciting the Polar Plunge pledge and dipped his shoe-covered feet in the lake as well.

The Park Ridge Police Department, which is represented each year at the Polar Plunge, was back with a team of 21 members, who, with help from additional supporters, raised nearly $4,900 for Special Olympics.

Park Ridge Alderman Charlie Melidosian and Police Department Executive Officer Tom Gadomski donned head-to-toe dinosaur costumes for the big event and got into some play-fighting both in and out of the water.

"I couldn't get the rest of the department to go along with it," Gadomski said of the costumes, laughing. "Last year was as cold as it could be. This year was so nice and warm, and I've got to say, the dinosaur costume was nice and warm inside."

Melidosian, who participated in the plunge for the first time, called the experience "awesomely refreshing," but quite different from the beaches of Cancun, Mexico, where he had been the day before.

"Going from those ocean waters to this lake water was a bit of a change," he acknowledged.

Park Ridge Police Officer Bob Kampwirth also took his first polar plunge at his 9-year-old son Declan's urging.

"My son said he wanted to do it this year so I said I'd jump in with him," said Kampwirth, whose wife, Keri, also took part.

"We got lucky today because it's not as cold," she said. "It's fun because it's for a great cause."

The Wilmette police and fire departments were also represented at the Polar Plunge, with teammates wearing the shirts of their respective uniforms as they drenched themselves in the lake. The team took third place in fundraising, collecting $6,200 in donations, according to the event's website.

Dani Milito, Sarah Grimson, Filli Walsh, Kathleen Downey and Natalia Kuppers of Maine South High School's Hawk Pals club volunteered to get drenched in Lake Michigan as well. One of the responsibilities of Hawk Pals is to be a helping hand to special-needs students, like those who participate in Maine South Special Olympics programs.

"I love raising money for all my friends because it helps them so much," said Grimson, who was marking her fourth year of plunging.

jjohnson@chicagotribune.com

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