Students Brave The Chilly Bay For Special Olympics

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This January, Anne Arundel County students will join an estimated 4,500 of their peers from across the state to take a plunge into the chilly Chesapeake Bay and raise money for Maryland Special Olympics.

Event organizers hope the student efforts will bring in around $400,000 for the 24th annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, according to Jessie Hayes, senior director of special events for Maryland Special Olympics. However, none of these results would be possible without the efforts of teacher volunteers.

South River High School English teacher Mary Kokosko has volunteered as the school’s plunge team captain for the last 10 years. Along with student leaders, she organizes multiple fundraisers each year, facilitates transportation to the event, and even takes the plunge herself.

The Severna Park High alumna said there was so much interest this year, she had to limit the number of students to 300. Last year, South River’s 320 dippers raised $52,000, the most in the state, thanks to the group’s creative fundraisers.

Kokosko and student volunteers planned a pie-in-the-face contest, sold school merchandise and cotton candy at sporting events, and hosted a student-faculty basketball game, just to list a few fundraising efforts.

“I think we’ve done a good job here at South River and in the community … really instilling the importance of Special Olympics and the value that everybody gets from it,” Kokosko said.

Last year, Maryland high school and middle school students raised $380,000 through the Cool Schools Plunge program, now in its 11th year. Each student must raise a minimum of $50 to go to the January 23 event, which kicks off three days of plunges at Sandy Point State Park.

Patty DeLaet, who teaches eighth-grade science at Severna Park Middle and captains the school’s plunge team, challenges students to each raise $75.

“We participate because it gives the kids a nice sense of belonging and being a part of the community,” said DeLaet, who signed up 40 swimmers as of January 6.

Northeast High’s captain and math teacher Julia Lebowitz, who happens to be Kokosko’s older sister, said kids have varied motivations for participating.

“For some kids it’s a trend, and some kids have some sort of personal experience with Special Olympics, and for some it’s a bucket list, and for some kids they don’t ever get to go on a field trip,” Lebowitz said.

South River junior and student fundraising co-captain Kaylee Bates has been motivated to brave the brisk winter water every year since seventh grade because the cause hits close to home.

“We have a really close family friend who has Downs syndrome, and being able to do something that directly affects him and all the money goes toward [Special Olympics], to watch him play Unified Sports — it just makes me happy,” Bates said.

Unified Sports teams invite athletes of all abilities to play together. South River has unified bowling, bocce and tennis teams.

Diane Casey volunteers as Broadneck High School’s team captain. Casey said their biggest dollar amount was just over $20,000 in 2018 because the teachers said they would plunge if students raised a certain dollar amount.

“I had one teacher that said if the team raises $5,000, they’ll go all in,” said Casey, whose “price” was $20,000. She said the staff kept their end of the bargain and “plunged” with the students.

Kokosko said she hopes the kids gain a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.

“It’s not a day out of school; it’s not, you know, get a cool sweatshirt,” Kokosko said. “I want them to see the difference that it makes and carry on.”

The Police Plunge and Corporate Plunge happen on January 24, and the Maryland Plunge takes place on Saturday, January 25. The Super Plunge that requires plunge participants to take a dip every hour for 24 hours happens on January 17-18.

The progress of all fundraisers and ways to donate can be found at www.plungemd.com.

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