Virtual Polar Bear Plunge makes splash, raises $700,000 so far

With support of the Camden-Wyoming Fire Co., Caesar Rodney High School's wrestling team was among the many participants in the virtual version of the 2021 Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics. (Submitted photo/Special Olympics Delaware)

REHOBOTH BEACH — There was no wave of mass humanity along the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk on Super Bowl Sunday. There were no towel-holding onshore supporters nor thousands of brave Polar Bears running, diving and/or tiptoeing into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. The 30th edition of the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware was like nothing before, deviating from the norm due to COVID-19 restrictions and public health concerns with a virtual format that’s being hailed a smashing success. Hot tubs, backyard garden hoses, fire companies dousing participants in parking lots and other creative props replaced the usual Rehoboth Beach venue, as several thousand registered Polar Bears took the plunge on their own — most many days or weeks before the date that it shares with the Super Bowl. “It’s a different year. It definitely is,” said Claymont resident Irv Levin, a longtime Special Olympics Delaware supporter. As of Monday, the monetary tally for the virtual event was $700,000 and counting, according to SODE spokesman Jon Buzby. “Both numbers surpassed our virtual goals of 2,000 bears and $500,000 raised,” said Mr. Buzby. “The bears we heard from were certainly disappointed that the plunge was going virtual only, but not one single bear questioned the decision. Instead, they rallied to recruit new bears to join them with the ‘carrot’ that they could plunge when, where and in whatever water temperature they wanted. “We’ve heard from many saying that their new virtual bears planned to be ‘beach bears’ in 2022.” The Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware is the largest single fundraiser in support of the approximate 4,200 Special Olympics athletes and programs in the First State. The 2020 event, held just about a month before the pandemic hit, shutdowns began and life changed, topped the $1 million mark for the first time in Polar Bear Plunge history. To help celebrate the virtual world, SODE’s Facebook page showcased videos and photos. And yes, some folks took it upon themselves to plunge into the ocean. “Despite us discouraging bears in all of our communications for (them) not to plunge into open water, … several bears did do their own plunge at a beach. What we are happiest about is that all went off without any incident or injury,” said Mr. Buzby. In keeping with tradition, Special Olympics Delaware staff also joined in on the fun.

“We did our own virtual plunge in the parking lot of our office with the Aetna Fire Department providing us with a good dousing, and then, several staff members also did their own individual plunge with their family and friends,” said Mr. Buzby. “We firmly believe that if we ask others to do something like plunge or go ‘Over the Edge’ (another SODE fundraiser, where participants rappel over the side of a building), we should be willing to also do it.” Sponsors were on board as usual in this unusual year. “Presenting sponsors Wawa and Discover graciously sponsored the Virtual Plunge at the same level they do the in-person plunge,” Mr. Buzby said. “In addition, Jack Lingo Realtor and the Boardwalk Buddy Walk shifted their sponsorships of the 5K Run to the Plunge to the Virtual Plunge Video Contest. We can’t thank them enough!” Back for another year was a Polar Bear Plunge fundraising staple — the Levin Family Matching Fund. While not there in person hawking donations on the boardwalk, Mr. Levin and his wife, Phyllis — whose son, Jamie, is a longtime participant in Special Olympics programs — generously matched donations dollar for dollar. This year’s virtual effort was enhanced by a bar code option for matching contributions. Tabulating all source components, including friends, business colleagues and the Levin family match, estimates are there will be a nice chunk of change earmarked for SODE, ensuring uniforms, registration fees, equipment and other necessities are totally free for the athletes and their unified partners. “We don’t have a final tally yet,” said Mr. Buzby. “However, I can tell you that we had people who have never contributed to the fund before do so.”

With a $20 bill in hand, Irv Levin thanks one of the donors supporting the Levin Family Matching Fund during a previous Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware. (Submitted photo/Special Olympics Delaware)

Mr. Levin said he’s pleased with the turnout for the matching fund. “We got quite a bit, not like if I was on the boardwalk, but quite a bit. I’m going to get to $40,000 no matter what, even in virtual,” said Mr. Levin. “I was disappointed I couldn’t be on the boardwalk because I love that day. I love it when somebody says to me, ‘We appreciate what you do.’ I do it because we’re able to do it, and it’s a great cause, and we know what our son does with it.” ‘GameChanger’ Wawa’s support for Special Olympic athletes continues this month through its #GameChanger initiative. Through Feb. 21, patrons can donate spare change to Wawa’s coin canisters or round up to the nearest dollar at the register, and every donation made will help support over 4,200 SODE athletes.