By Jess Wisloski
The Special Olympics broke a record with its annual Penguin Plunge, held this year on Feb. 4 — but the $528,000 raised, which will help fund programs for special needs children and adults, was massively supported by students from the Williston area and Champlain Valley School District.
While 108 teams in total, and 1,269 children and adults took the plunge this year, students at Champlain Valley Union High School and Williston Central School were responsible for a full 12 percent of the funds rasied — $64,570.
Williston students were in part motivated by the crazy promises of chef and Imagine counselor Sam Beatson, who said he’d dye his hair pink if the team broke a $10,000 goal. They wound up being the fourth-highest fund raisers.
CVU’s team came in first place out of the 50 schools that participated in the Cool Schools challenge, raking in $52,590. The funds support programs that help children and adults with intellectual disabilities be physically active and train and compete year-round, while building strong community ties.
The Plunge, an event that sends normally sane people jumping into the 32-degree waters of Lake Champlain before emerging into what was 27-degree air this year, is responsible for generating a massive chunk — as much as 40 percent — of Special Olympics Vermont’s budget.
While the Special Olympics topped its own record from last year, of $480,000, Williston students broke their goals repeatedly, and wound up raising nearly double their original aim of $6,000. Students and staff collected $11,596.
Jodi Bartley, an Allen Brook School faculty member who coached the team, said she attributes a lot of the excitement at WCS to school chef Sam Beatson, who vowed to go pink — and then did.
Early Friday, Feb. 3, he let the highest fund-raising students — Aidan Ruggles, Kayla Cousino and Emily Howe among them — spray his head with bright pink temporary hair dye.
Beatson, 31, who has worked in the district for 13 years, said he had no doubts he’d do the challenge again next year. As for the hair, he said he’d have told the kids anything to get them excited and boost involvement. Unsurprisingly, he was the team’s highest fund-raiser, bringing in $1,291. It was his first year plunging.
“I’m always just kinda doing ridiculous things,” he said, self-identifying as the “adult clown of the building.”
“Any time someone needs someone to dress up, I’m always game. I have had a hard time growing up I guess,” he said.
His excitement rubbed off on Greg Marino, a veteran Penguin Plunger of six years. When the time came to fulfill another promise Beatson made the kids — that they could smash whipped-cream pies in his face — Marino offered to take the hit, too.
“That was awesome. That was really exciting,” he said. “Greg was one of the top fundraisers. He was going to get to smoosh a pie in my face. He said, ‘No, I’ll take half the pies.’”
Kids who were on the Plunge team gathered in the cafeteria at 7:45 a.m. that Friday, and took turns spraying Beatson’s hair, before smashing pies in the two men’s faces. Beatson said the hair was easier than the swim, but he was game for doing both again next year. And, by merit of looking a little whacky, he said he thinks more kids became intrigued about joining future efforts.
“I’m definitely going to do it again — it was a blast,” he said. And the icy dip? “It wasn’t too bad, it was windy on the waterfront, but it felt better getting out of the water than going in,” he said.