The weather shifted from polar to spring-like in just a day, but the waters off Compo Beach were still plenty chilly Saturday to justify the "Penguin" theme of an annual benefit for the Connecticut Special Olympics.
For a 10th year, hundreds turned out for the Penguin Plunge for a quick dip in frigid Long Island Sound to raise monies to support Special Olympics programs in the southwest part of the state.
"This is the largest plunge of all the plunges in the state," said Gail Feinstein, the volunteer chairwoman coordinating all the event volunteers. "Each year we raise in the neighborhood of $120,000. Things often depend on the weather, but typically we have 400 to 500 plunging. Our spectator base grows on a great day, too."
Feinstein was grateful for efforts by town employees from the Parks & Recreation and Fire departments for helping make the event possible in the aftermath of the winter storm that dumped several inches of snow across the region a day earlier. "They were out here yesterday shoveling and getting things ready," she said. "We've never had to cancel the event, though we were concerned about the past week's storm. At the same time, we knew it would be over in time and sunny on the event day."
Besides five waves of swimmers who plunged into the Sound, the event included raffles, beef brisket chili and chowder, a costume contest and a live radio broadcast. All of this combined to attract a field of participants ages from age 8 to over 80, including Special Olympics athletes.
"Special Olympics activities happen all year, and are not just one set of games," said Feinstein, "and events like this help with funding. About 75 volunteers or more from all over the state have been planning a good six months out. It has become formula but still requires a lot of effort and logistics. Among the volunteers, we have an Incentives Team that provides rewards for various pledge amounts, from commemorative tees to colored bow ties and beyond."
Feinstein was pleased that many of the participants come back year after year, and then see the children of participants join in.
But it was the first Penguin Plunge for Julia Vallejo of Norwalk. "I came down to support the cause ... and I hope everything goes well," she said. "I'm glad that it's sunny -- I wasn't sure about doing this the other day with the snow. I'm going to go in quick and come out even faster."
Mary Martinik, the student council advisor at Bedford Middle School and a veteran of the Plunge, said, "This is our sixth year plunging as a school
"Last year we had 31 participants; we're hoping for as many this year. We show the students a Special Olympics video in school so they understand the focus and purpose of the Plunge," she said. "We also visit with Special Olympians to capture first-hand insight. That's the most powerful part for our students."