Starting a new fundraiser is always a risky venture for a non-profit organization.
“How much time do we dedicate to something new?”
“What if no one shows up?”
“What if it’s successful, but people don’t come back because they did it once and that’s it?”
When Susan Stegeman, Special Olympics Missouri vice president, first heard about a potential new fundraiser 20 years ago – the Polar Plunge — she said she wasn’t really sure what to think. She reached out to fellow Special Olympics programs that were already putting on Polar Plunge events, asking for their help.
Her pitch for Osage Beach P.D. to hold the first Plunge was all about being a part of something “really huge.”
Once the police department signed on, she said everyone else in the community really gravitated toward the event not just due to the cause, but the uniqueness as well.
That first year’s Plunge had 54 people take a dip and raised more than $8,200.
“Back then we didn’t really know what to do, so we just had everybody go in at the same time and it was over in about eight seconds,” Stegeman said. “Who would have thought from our humble beginnings 20 years ago that we would grow into this mecca, mega-event?”
Embraced from day one
The Lake of the Ozarks Plunge is a partnership between an organization and community that means so much to both parties.
Pete Leyva of the Osage Beach P.D. has been on the Lake of the Ozarks Plunge Committee for 15 years. He has seen the impact the Plunge has on the city during a slower part of the year, tourism-wise.
“When Susan Stegeman first got a hold of Chief Troutman that first year, she could have went to many different lakes,” Leyva said.
“We are the granddaddy of all the Plunges. We are proud to hold that moniker and what it does for the city especially at this time of year bringing that many people in. They’re not just Plunging, they’re going back to the motels, shopping at our businesses and this time of year the merchants just appreciate their business.
Even more importantly to Leyva and other committee members involved, Leyva has seen the effect it has on SOMO’s athletes.
“It’s a lot on our shoulders, but at the same time I do it for Special Olympics,” he said. “I’ve been to the events. I’ve been to the Summer Games. I’ve been to the USA Games the first year we had them. I’ve been to different events for Special Olympics… What Special Olympics has done for me, even though I give back, I could never give back as much as they’ve given to me.”
‘The kindest of the kind’
While committee members and SOMO staff have worked tirelessly over the past 20 years to make it a successful event, the Lake of the Ozarks Plunge wouldn’t be the Lake’s largest winter party without the Plungers themselves. And four people have been there since the very beginning – Randy Werner, Norma Brown, Curt Yaeger and Ed Flaspohler.
“We all came down that first year and started it,” Flaspohler said. “We went in three or four times that first year. It’s been a great cause.”
Brown said while many like to say they’re the craziest of the crazy for Plunging, she likes to think of them as “the kindest of the kind.”
“It’s a great cause… If we can do this for (the athletes) and raise money for them so they can do things that we all like to do then giddy up, right?,” Brown said.
Always looking to improve
Just like with any good event, the Lake of the Ozarks has always looked for ways to not only make more money for SOMO, but to also improve the overall Plunger experience.
It’s no longer an event where people jump in and out and get on the road, it’s a whole-day experience beginning with the Polar Bear Strut (5k/fun run), the Super Plunge where the bravest of the brave Plunge 24 times in 24 hours, the Parade of Costumes, Post-Plunge Party and so much more.
“Overall, 20 years looking back it’s pretty amazing that it just continues to grow and grow and be part of people’s winter traditions,” Stegeman said. “I talk to people who say that it’s their family reunion. I talk to people who say they wouldn’t miss it and they don’t. They just come and make a weekend of it at the Lake.
“So it really is a tradition at the Lake that we’re proud to be a part of — to be the beneficiary of everybody’s hard work in the winter.”
The Lake of the Ozarks Plunge over the years has had more than 9,500 people and raised more than $2.3 million.
“That’s a phenomenal accomplishment and effort on people’s behalf,” Stegeman said. “I have to give a huge thank-you to the Lake of the Ozarks community, especially Osage Beach who has wrapped its arms around this like no one else.
“Thank you for making the magic happen from the beginning and believing in something we didn’t really know what it could become, but looking back it’s been pretty awesome.”
Replicating that success
It was nine years before SOMO staff decided to take the Plunge to another part of the state – Lake Saint Louis in 2004.
“While we knew the Plunge was awesome and growing every year… we wanted to make sure the one at the Lake of the Ozarks was solid before we started messing with it,” Stegeman said.
“We had this fear that people wouldn’t come to the Lake and start going somewhere else. That really isn’t what happened at all. We found out that there are many, many people who will Plunge right in their own communities and not impact the Lake of the Ozarks Plunge.”
The following year in 2005, they added the Plunge in Kansas City and in 2014 (not all 2015 numbers are in yet), Special Olympics Missouri held more than 14 Plunges around the state with more than 4,615 participants raising nearly $1.1 million.
But it all started with the Plunge at the Lake; and the community and people who Plunge there are so proud to have been a part of it for 20 years.
“This is THE Plunge,” Brown said. “You come to this one regardless of where other locations are having it around Missouri, because this is THE Plunge.”
Werner said the Plunges have played a huge role in spreading awareness not just about Special Olympics’ athletes, but people with intellectual disabilities in general. No matter how much money has been raised over the years, he said you can’t put a price on that kind of exposure.
“I think statewide, Special Olympics has gotten more and more attention because of the Plunge and people don’t have any problem doing strange things for a good cause,” Werner said.
“The awareness that this has perpetuated is just going to keep growing and has grown all over the state not just with the Plunge, but all kinds of other events.”