March 7, 2016

Polar plunge mixes fun, community aid

PlungeJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Mariah Tobias and her fellow Dunkin’ Donuts participants with the Cortland Family Health Network enjoy some time on inflatable tubes during Saturday’s Great Polar Bear Challenge at Yaman Park in Cortland.

Staff Reporter

Participants in this year’s Great Polar Bear Challenge braved the cold temperatures in their bathing suits, gym clothes and inflatable tubes in support of the United Way for Cortland County.
While the temperature of the water was not taken, City Youth Bureau Director John McNerney estimated the temperature at somewhere between 30 and40 degrees, given the ice that was on top of the water.
The United Way raised $7,600 at the event but donations are continuing this week, said United Way organizer Abby Oaks.
State police divers were clearing the ice that was on top of the water. State police, city firefighters and volunteers from the Red Cross were standing at the shoreline, ready to assist the plungers on their way out of the water.
“The United Way does a lot for this community,” Red Cross volunteer Frank VanSickle said at the event. He said the American Red Cross and the United Way share the same building at 50 Clinton Ave., and often assist each other with projects in the community.
VanSickle has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for10 years. He said he is happy to help with the event, but could not see himself joining in it.
“There’s no way anyone’s going to want to see me running into that cold water,” he said jokingly on Saturday.
There were a total of 50 people who plunged this year; some participated in teams, while others plunged solo.
The Cortland Regional Medical Center team, dressed in doctor scrubs, raised $2,251 — the highest amount from a team. The hospital held a denim day and ice cream socials to raise money, with friends and family sponsoring them. The team with the second highest contribution was from the Cortland Child Development Centers. The team raised $1,505 through bake sales and other fundraisers at its day care center.
The United Way’s new director, Christella Yonta, joined in the fun and dressed up as Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” to brave the cold water.
“The water was chilly, but once you are in there, your mind is elsewhere,” Yonta said this morning.
She said the worst part of the day was the anticipation of going into the water, but in the end, it was all worth it.
Dressed with large, doughnut-shape inflatable tubes and Dunkin’ Donuts cups on their heads, a group from the Family Health Network of Central New York participated as a team for this year’s plunge.
“I’ve been doing this event for six years,” Andrea VanDonsel said before the event began. She said that the event isbetter on days when temperatures stay low.
“The water feels warmer when its cold out —the one year we had beautiful weather, I got the coldest because of having to get back out of the water,” VanDonsel said before plunging.
She said she is happy to give back to the United Way by participating in something fun. She kept the group’s spirits high before the plunge, telling members they would be glad to participate in a chance-of-a-lifetime event.
Leah Dutcher, a first-timer and member of the Family Health Network group, admitted she was terrified about taking the plunge. With her teammates beside her, Dutcher walked out to the buoy 30 feet away, then back.
“At one point, because I was so cold, I wasn’t sure if my feet were actually moving or not,” Dutcher said after the race. She and her teammates were happy to warm themselves up in hot tubs that were rented for the day.
A group of three friends made up the Batman Ballerinas team, founded by three-year polar plunger Ashley Pittsley. The girls wore black Batman T-shirts and green and black tutus.
She said she overheard a friend talking about the event years ago and has been hooked on the fundraiser since her first plunge in 2014.
“I like raising money, it’s fun, and I think it goes to programs needed in the community,” she said before getting in the water.
Pittsley and her friends held hands while getting in the water. Once making it to the buoy and back, the girls were happy to get into the hot tub.

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