Nearly 70 participants plunged into the ice-cold waters of Lake Bennett at Woolly Hollow State Park on Saturday to raise money for area Special Olympics of Arkansas athletes.
The Polar Plunge raises money so that athletes have the opportunity to participate in all events at the Special Olympics, Chairman Brenda Dowdy said, noting money raised during the plunge helps cover all funds from supplies to training athletes and educating coaches.
Dowdy, who is also a member of the Polar Plunge Board for Area 17, which covers Faulkner, Pope, Conway, Perry and Van Buren counties, said the Polar Plunge works in connection with the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which also raises money for the Special Olympics of Arkansas (SOAR).
The 2019 Polar Plunge held at Woolly Hollow State Park, which rests about seven miles outside of Greenbrier, raised more than $10,400 unofficially for SOAR.
Saturday's event saw nearly 70 plungers, who ran into the 52-degree waters of Lake Bennett. The outside temperature was 36 degrees.
Woolly Hollow Superintendent Matt Woodard said he was excited to see the park fill up with Polar Plunge participants and supporters Saturday. The event has been held at the park for nearly a decade, and it's a park favorite among staff, he said.
While the Conway Human Development Center's team was unable to make this year's event, the group and all its athletes were in Springdale participating in the 2019 SOAR Winter Games. Despite not being at the event in person, CHDC Superintendent Sarah Murphy said she is forever thankful for the opportunities the event provides.
"CHDC is so thankful that Special Olympics Arkansas hosts fundraisers like the Polar Plunge that support Arkansas Special Olympic athletes. Special Olympics is about so much more than just sports; it is experiences, relationships and building self confidence," she told the Log Cabin. "We care about what our residents care about. They enjoy participating in Special Olympic events and activities all year long."
For several 2019 participants, it was their first to take part in the plunge.
One team — Brain Freeze — was composed completely of first-time plungers.
Vilonia Public Schools Superintendent David Stephens, Michael Johnson of the Liberty of the Nazarene, Mike Jensen of the Vilonia Police Department, Gina McNew, who works for Conway Regional Medical Center's Vilonia clinic, and Ashley Palmer of Conway Orthopedics decided together to jump into the frigid waters at Woolly Hollow to benefit SOAR athletes.
McNew said the idea for their group came to life when a friend passed along a Polar Plunge T-shirt but guilt began to sit in each time she wore the shirt.
"One day, I was wearing the shirt and I felt guilty for wearing it since I haven't actually done this. But [recently] flyers for this [year's] event began popping up, and now here we are. Now, I can say I've earned my shirt," she said.
Multiple law enforcement agencies and officers were also onsite including, the Faulkner County Sheriff's Office, University of Central Arkansas Police Department, Vilonia Police Department, Conway Police Department and Guy Police Department.
It was the polar plunge for @SOArkansas ..while we were enthusiastic about raising money for a good cause some of us were less than enthusiast about going into freezing water in 30 degree weather but we did! #yourconwaypolice #polarplunge2019 #SpecialOlympicsarkansas pic.twitter.com/F8qOR9wZ5w— Conway Police Dept. (@ConwayPolice) February 9, 2019
Maj. Chris Harris said CPD is involved in supporting SOAR year-round by providing financial support through a number of fundraisers. Events such as the Polar Plunge help Conway officers and more to further build relationships with local athletes.
"The Polar Plunge is an opportunity for police officers from various divisions to come together and publicly show their support for this deserving group of athletes," Harris told the Log Cabin. "The public often only sees officers in a time of crisis and negativity — this is one of the many activities where the men and women in blue along with civilians from other departments give back and show the community the other side of policing."
Sheriff Tim Ryals said the Polar Plunge and other like fundraisers are important to FCSO.
"We've been participating in this for many years," he said. "It's obviously important to the sheriff's office and myself. It's amazing how first responders and law enforcement officers are always the first ones to step up to the plate when it comes to supporting our communities, especially when it's dealing with the Special Olympics and with those with special needs."
The 2018 Polar Plunge raised funds to purchase two sets of softball uniforms for area athletes. This year, organizers plan to purchase wind suits for athletes from money raised at the annual Polar Plunge event.