When it comes to supporting a charity that’s especially meaningful to you, some people walk their talk in a literal sense, by raising money through their participation in a walkathon or a 5K run. Others — the truly committed (or, some might say, perhaps those who ought to be committed) — take it one very big step further: right into a freezing-cold lake on a midwinter day.
The latter approach was demonstrated last Saturday at the reservoir in Berean Park, on the flanks of Illinois Mountain in Highland, as the SubZero Heroes challenge got underway to benefit the Hudson Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The temperature was actually a bit warmer than the weeks preceding, hovering around the 40-degree mark on the day of the plunge. But even when the mercury is above the freezing point, a person who has been drenched in cold water and is exposed to the wind can die of hypothermia within a matter of minutes. It takes true heroism to jump into that lake in February for a good cause. This year, 88 brave souls took part, raising a total of more than $90,000.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the crazies from the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, who have been taking a wintertime dip in the ocean every Sunday from November through April since 1903. It started out being just for fun, inspired by the quaint turn-of-the-century premise that icy baths were healthful and invigorating. But the media loved it. In 2005, the group started making the heavily attended annual New Year’s Day plunge a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. Soon that idea began to catch on with a variety of charities who were looking for an event that would pique the public imagination more than those ubiquitous walkathons.
The Alzheimer’s Association hereabouts took up the challenge in 2010, and many of the teams come back year after year. “There are a lot of repeats,” notes Michele Muir, vice president of Marketing and Development for the organization, who served as the master of ceremonies at this year’s event, dressed in an outsized purple plush top hat. “I got out of jumping this year,” she says, sounding a little relieved; but the top three teams come back year after year, vying for the crown of champion fundraiser and collectively raising more than $50,000 this year alone.
The Ulster County Sheriff’s Department led the way, with sheriff Paul Van Blarcum the first to take the leap of faith, fully dressed in his work uniform. A rescue team of SCUBA divers from his department, clad relatively comfortably in wetsuits, stood by in the cold waist-deep water to provide support as each team stepped out onto the ice. Sheriff’s Department volunteers also did the ice-cutting to expose the diving area, which measured about 20 feet square.
For each fundraiser who gets wet, there’s a designated support team to make sure that he or she dries off quickly and is whisked to a heated tent to get warm afterward. “A Hero is the person that jumps,” explains Muir. “A Sidekick doesn’t jump, but they raise money; they provide towels; they cheer them on.” Each Hero recruits a list of sponsors who donate to the Association – usually in honor of some loved one lost to the debilitating dementia of Alzheimer’s.
Bob Miller of WBPM radio 92.9 spearheads Team Sal, another of the consistent top three fundraisers. The team is named for Miller’s father-in-law, Salvatore Cavalieri, who died from Alzheimer’s disease. Miller says that the Association was a “huge help” to the family during Sal’s illness: “Getting all the right advice was really critical.”
According to Muir, the money raised through the SubZero Heroes event “gets allocated for programs, services and research. Our services include support groups, education programs, care consultations by a someone with a Master’s in Social Work… We have a 24/7 help line.”
The third of the consistent top three fundraising teams is the Ulster County Firemen, led by Jimmy Anzalone, who jumped into the frigid lake hand-in-hand with a teenage boy. Many young people participate in the event, often dressed up in elaborate costumes as members of teams with fanciful names like the Purple Plungers, the Jumping Sharks, the Quivering Quakers and the Flying Monkeys. One or two even go back for a second plunge.
“You never feel more alive than coming up out of that water,” avers one member of the Herb Litts Family Team as he emerges from the lake and trudges up the icy path towards the changing room. “Thank you for making me put my money where my mouth is,” says the sole member of Team Throwin’ Jake in a Frozen Lake to Muir as he promises to bring back some recalcitrant co-workers next year.
After drying off and changing into dry clothes, participants headed uphill to a pavilion where Chef Scott Swartz and a crew of his students from the Culinary Institute of America were handing out warming treats. There was hot cider donated by Minard Farms, and a hot chocolate bar featuring syrup from the Crown Maple Company and marshmallows from the Hudson Valley Marshmallow Company. Bread Alone provided rolls, and platters of cookies from Home Plate Deli and the Sugar & Spice Café were set out as well. Various sponsors displayed product samples and literature on tables nearby, with Cheesecake Heaven conducting a silent auction of delectable-looking cheesecakes, proceeds to be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The last ones out of the water were the first ones in: the forensic dive team from the County Sheriff’s Office. Before emerging, they lined up, each holding up a small sign. Taken together, they read, “Thank you for your support.”