By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
As pipes and drums played a marching tune, more than 1,000 students, parents, teachers and administrators careened down the sloping and rather soggy sands in back of Sea Bright’s Donovan’s Reef Jan. 28 and into the rolling sea.
By the time they emerged from the water moments later, some 21 Catholic schools around New Jersey were $120,000 better off thanks to the 12th annual Polar Plunge for Catholic Education. Sponsored since its inception by the Ancient Order of Hibernians Patrick Torphy Division, the event has raised more than $1 million to benefit the academic and spiritual mission of the schools.
Photo Gallery: Polar Plunge for Catholic Education
First held in 2007, the event focuses on raising funds that schools can earmark to support a range of assistance including scholarships, emergency financial aid to families, endowment and various facility upgrades.
The AOH raises roughly $6,000 each year to cover the cost of the event itself, leaving the schools to directly benefit from all of the funds they raise from taking the plunge, said Jim Shaw, who founded the event and has directed its progress ever since.
The fact that the plunge was timed this year to coincide with the nationwide observance of Catholic Schools Week seemed to make it even more celebratory than usual, said Shaw and participants such as Eugenia Kelly.
Kelly, pastoral assistant in Holy Cross Parish, Rumson, plunged into the ocean up to her knees as she accompanied her granddaughter, Maddy York, a sixth-grade student in Holy Cross School. Both said the plunge was a great finale to the day, which began with Mass and a festive chili lunch in the parish hall.
“Everyone had a good time,” Kelly said. “There were so many schools; their flags were flying; there were pipers and all the kids. It was really a special start to the week.”
“It was great to do this with my friends for the cause of Catholic education,” her granddaughter added.
While fundraising was the main goal of the day, the fun, family and community aspects of the activity were perhaps equally as important, many noted. This included the festive after-party as participants were congratulated by scores of folks of all generations who came to offer support.
Among them was Kira Nelsen, who teaches kindergarten in St. James School, Red Bank. Nelsen lingered on the beach and boardwalk with a number of student plungers celebrating that the school had raised more than $1,300 for a host of “wish list” projects. She noted that last year’s plunge helped trim that wish list, providing, among other needs, funds for new drapes for the school stage, the beginnings of a curriculum reading program and a library renovation.
“The kids just have a ball knowing they have helped out their school,” Nelsen said.
Ryan Manlys, 12, a seventh-grader in St. Mary School, Middletown, was one such student. Celebrating his fourth plunge since 2012, Manlys shared that he has raised $500 to benefit his school. His mom, Lisa, called the plunge “very much a family activity for the family oriented school.”
Gregory J. Guito, principal of Belmar’s St. Rose School, was jubilant as he reflected on his first plunge into the surf to benefit Catholic education.
“The nice part about this is that the entire St. Rose community was involved,” he said. “This day was perfect in every way. It really highlighted the Catholic school family.”
Some 57 plungers raised $5,000, he said, which will be divided among a number of projects including the school’s technology program and curriculum and library updates.
Father John Butler, pastor of St. Michael Parish, West End, said the plunge delivered an “old-fashioned sense of joy, fun, vitality, exuberance and camaraderie.”
The spirit and motivation generated among participants and contributors, he said, continues to energize the students and the entire Catholic school community well after the plunge is over, nurturing “a well-rounded sense of Catholic identity and service among the participants.”
“Of course, the plunge also benefits Catholic education by means of its awareness-raising effect and the visibility of the event in and throughout the community,” he continued, adding that from the pre-plunge publicity to the numerous school banners and school flags displayed, “it was impossible to miss the cause that was being advocated.”