Polar Bear Plunge is a dip for a good cause

Every December, waves of otherwise perfectly sane people choose to run headfirst into a frigid lake.

It takes a special kind of person — or at least a good cause.

Liz Toukonen, executive director of the Bellefonte YMCA branch, said the organization’s Polar Bear Plunge has both.

This year, the event is set for Dec. 7 at the Bald Eagle State Park marina boat ramp.

Last year, the plunge helped raise nearly $45,000 for the YMCA’s Open Doors program, money the organization uses to make its resources available to all families, even if they can’t afford a full membership.

A record 177 people took the plunge last year, running into and then swimming around in Sayers Lake then popping back out into the cold December air. Some promptly jumped back in — and then again to obtain “Super Plunger” status.

“They are a little crazy,” Toukonen said.

She should know: She’s been at it as long as anyone.

“I don’t think I could miss it now,” said Toukonen, who helped organize the first event 11 years ago and has seen participation increase from a mere 17 plungers to an expected 200 this year. The 2013 goal is $50,000.

“We started it for something different,” she said. “It’s a fun event, unique. It’s an easy way to raise money.”

And the interest has been growing. Last year, the Polar Bear Plunge set records in participants and money raised. Organizers are hoping for even more this year.

“We don’t lose plungers,” Toukonen said. “Most of the time, everyone comes back.”

Organizers have been pushing in the State College area for more participation.

This year, a free bus service will take people to and from the lake.

Buses will leave the day of the plunge from the Moshannon Valley YMCA at 8 a.m.; WalMart, North Atherton, State College, at 8:40 a.m.; Schlow Centre Region Library, State College, at 8:50 a.m.; and arrive at Bald Eagle State Park at 9:45 a.m.

They are also going for more of a family-feel for the event by including attractions such as a photo booth, face-painting, crafts and more.

And there’s still the 40 degree water to jump into.

“You think of going in the water in the middle of December as a crazy experience,” Toukonen said. “But you get so excited and feed on each other. It seems doable.”

The money raised helps subsidize participation in learn-to-swim classes for youth, childcare and programs for teens, families and the elderly.

“We’ve been able to do so much with the monies raised through fundraisers,” Toukonen said. “We estimate one in four members are impacted through our Open Door program.

“There’s a lot of need out there for people who maybe just need a little break,” she said. “We really try to look at the person, what’s going on in their life.”

The YMCA is holding a pre-plunge party at 5 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Bellefonte YMCA, and anyone who wants to register can do so online, in person at the YMCA or during the party.

Plungers must raise a minimum of $75 in donations. Little dippers, or children from 8 to 12, must raise $25. Super dippers, who jump in three times, must raise $300, but will receive a special prize.

More information can be found at www.ymcaofcentrecounty.org/plunge/welcome-to-the-plunge.