From those PBA members who plunged wearing kilts and war paint to those who plunged dressed as superheroes to those who plunged wearing barely anything, they accentuated the reason thousands of them once again stepped up for the Polar Bear Plunge on Feb. 20 in Seaside Heights:
Pride. Pride in the cause, of course, and their participation spearheaded the effort that raised a record $1.7 million for Special Olympics New Jersey with the 2016 Law Enforcement Polar Bear Plunge. Pride also in their communities to fulfill their goal of serving that goes along with the protecting. Pride in remembering and commemorating members who are no longer able to plunge and carrying on the mission started by members who have passed away.
“This is one thing where we can puff our chests out a little bit further because it’s the right thing to do,” observed Kevin Burke, the retired NJ State Trooper who is the law enforcement plunge event organizer and has been part of this extravaganza for 22 years. “The synergy and energy here with officers from across the state that participate made it electric. Each year it gets better and better.”
Burke further noted how law enforcement officers exceeded expectations this year not just because they reached another record amount of money raised.“When we work together as a team, as a single unit, look what we can accomplished,” he shared.
Dozens of Locals and thousands of members participated in the 2016 plunge. Many of them shared their stories of how and why they plunge:
The unseasonably warm weather and sunshine that peaked through on Plunge Saturday did not just come out of the blue. Not if you ask the members of Western Bergen County Local 79 and North Haledon Local 292.
The man upstairs apparently had a little help this year from Local 79 member and Midland Park Police Officer Chris Birch, who was killed in an off-duty ATV accident in 2015 at the age of 31. Chris was looking over a group of his brothers, sisters, friends, family – and his mother Donna – who came to plunge this year in his memory.
Chris Birch had been plunging since 2007. He would come with his brother, his nephew and his godson. Fellow officers remember him as somebody who wanted to do everything he could to support Special Olympics, and that’s why they came.
“Considering last weekend it was 20-below, I believe today being so bright and sunny has something to do with Chris,” declared Donna Birch, who joined 25 Team Birch members to make her first plunge. “He knew his mother would never survive the cold. He’s making it a happy day.”
Birch served the Midland Park Police Department since 2007, and for a year prior to that he worked for North Haledon. To honor his best friend of 29 years, Local 292 member Mike Cedar gathered a group to plunge that even included Midland Park Chief Mike Powderley.
“This being the first year of Chris not being here, we all felt it was necessary to be here for him,” Cedar explained. “That’s the way Chris was. I don’t think many people were better than Chris. All you had to do was call. He was a guy who was there before you needed him.”
Cedar led the call, and members from Local 79 and 292 responded, as well as othering neighboring towns such as Glen Rock Local 110. In addition to the 25 who plunged, many other donated in memory of Chris. Team Birch raised more than $11,000 from its plunge to donate to Special Olympics, and that was on top of $16,000 they had combined to raise previously in memory of Chris.
“Chris dedicated so much of his time to Special Olympics, so it’s great to see how many people are here to show appreciation for all Chris gave to Special Olympics,” Chief Powderley noted. “This is just something we are doing to send a message to Chris to let him know we are here for him.”
Tony Tierno, a Delaware Township resident, had been involved with Special Olympics New Jersey since 1986, eventually becoming the State Director and Head Coach of the New Jersey Team USA, where he trained power lifters who brought home four World Games championships. Tierno passed on May 18, 2015, leaving a deep loss felt by everyone in the Special Olympics New Jersey community, especially by Hunterdon County Local 188.
“It’s a huge loss for the Special Olympics,” recognized Local 188 member Frank Emanuele. “We’re plunging this year in tribute to his memory and his services to the Special Olympics.”
Tierno’s passion for the organization and this event in particular was transcendent in inspiring Local 188 members to get involved in the Polar Bear Plunge.
“We can remember and honor Tierno’s legacy just by participating and trying to raise as much money as possible in his honor,” emphasized Emanuele.
For the third consecutive year, the Local gathered 15 members to plunge. With Tierno’s spirit at the forefront of their minds, members stepped up their efforts to raise $2,500 for the athletes he passionately worked to help.
“Some of us started fundraising as early as Thanksgiving and some guys jumped on board two weeks ago,” acknowledged Local 188 Vice-President Brian McNally, who has been partaking in the action since 2006. “It brings us together as a group, but first and foremost the Plunge benefits a great cause. That’s why we’re here.”
Woodbridge Local 38: Bravecops
Standing on the beach, kilt-clad, adorned with blue Braveheart war paint and riding a stick horse named Joe, about 20 brave plungers prepared to face an enemy of vast proportions and frigid temperatures. And just as the ragtag Scottish freedom fighters stood up against the English inspired by William Wallace’s legendary speech, the courage to face the winter Atlantic Ocean had these PBA members psyching themselves up…
But Local 38 members feel no cold!
Yes, I’ve heard. They arrest criminals by the hundreds, and if they were here, they’d consume the Atlantic with fireballs from their eyes and warming pads from their… utility bags. We ARE Local 38. And we see a whole army of my PBA members here in support of Special Olympics New Jersey. You have come to plunge as dedicated members, and dedicated members you are. What would you do without dedication? Will you plunge?
Plunge? Against that ocean? No, we will go home; and we will stay warm.
Aye, plunge and you may get cold. Go home and you’ll stay warm – at least a while. And sitting in your roll call room many shifts from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance… just one chance to come back to Seaside Heights and tell these Special Olympians that the ocean may take our warmth, but it’ll never take our dedication…
Local 38 has become renowned at the plunge for displaying a theme that brings a little fun and a lot of camaraderie to the event. Member Neal Auericchio came up with the Braveheart idea; the kilts and war paint came directly from Party City.
“We like to get everybody out here and make it a good time,” said Local 38 Board Member Dean Janowski. “We try to show camaraderie between us and also that we’re not just cops. We are people and we do good things outside of work. We like to goof a little bit and at the same time raise some money for charity. We’re here every year and we will continue to do this.”
Essex County Sheriff’s Office Local 183: Heroes for hire
It’s a bird…
It’s a plane…
It’s Superman… and an Expendable… and Simpsons characters Radioactive Man and Duffman…
For the third consecutive year, Essex County Sheriff’s Office Local 183 members, otherwise known as “Heroes for Hire,” came out caped and ready to play superheroes for the day in honor of Special Olympics New Jersey.
“From day one we said let’s dress up, and we’ve tried to stick to superheroes,” commented Jason Orphan, who spearheaded the Local’s initial involvement, but this year left his cape and cowl at home due to the chaos of retiring this month while preparing for a move.
The Local raised $400 in its first year, followed by $600 in the second year and almost double that this year, raising $1,175 between just four members.
“You have to give back every once in a while,” stated Orphan. “Look around, it’s a happy place and everyone is having a good time to benefit this one cause.”
Added Local 183 member Jason Rodriguez: “When do you get the opportunity to plunge in the water in the middle of winter? It’s amazing. We’re hoping to get more and more guys so we can give a little more each year. Hopefully in a few years, we’ll have a whole gang of superheroes here.”
A Justice League… perhaps?
West Windsor Township Local 271: Words of wisdom for a first-timer
For her first plunge, West Windsor Township Local 271 member Megan Erkoboni had a lot of experience from which to refer. And as Local 271 State Delegate Francesco LaTorre – who has been plunging since 1999 – imparted, it’s all about footwear.
“I’ve learned the hard way that you have to wear shoes to go in the water,” LaTorre elaborated. “The weather’s nice today but we’ve had some (plunges) over the years when you’ve have do walk over ice to get to the water. People think (wearing foot protection) is cheating but I don’t care.”
The other lesson learned?
“Always have an appointed towel person,” LaTorre added. “The first few years, we lost our stuff when we came out of the water. You’re going in with too many people and you get turned around and you don’t know where your things are when we come out. Now we have someone waiting for us.”
About 20 plungers arrived early to the Local 271 RV members parked by the beach the night before and began “psych up opps” – making food and getting ready for the most unlikely of parties.
“Our chief came out, our PBA president is here, (State PBA Executive Vice-President) Marc Kovar stopped by. We have a grill and we make food for people walking past so everyone feels comfortable and that they keep coming back and raise as much money as they possibly can,” LaTorre said, noting that the team raised $3,730 for this year’s plunge. “It’s been bigger before and we want to get back to five figures next year like we’ve been done in the past.”
As for Erkoboni, participating in her first Polar Bear Plunge is all the more special following her recent experience watching where the money raised goes: From Feb. 2-4, Erkoboni volunteered at the Special Olympic Winter Games in Mountain Creek, awarding medals at the closing ceremony.
“There’s nothing that a photo can communicate to you over being there and putting that medal on that Olympian’s neck and giving them a high five,” she exclaimed. “It’s pure joy and a big sense of accomplishment for them, and it was really an honor to do that.”