Empowering Communities

Cold Lake, Warm Hearts: Why Polar Plungers Plunge

March 2, 2017

Each year that Anna Panszczyk participates in the Special Olympics Polar Plunge, she wraps her neck in a puzzle-patterned scarf and tells herself that she’s going to dive into Lake Michigan’s freezing water without hesitation. And each year, once the water reaches her knees, she turns around and runs to shore, searching for warmth.

Matt and Anna Panszczyk

Matt and Anna Panszczyk at the Polar Plunge in 2016.

But she knows she’ll keep making the same promise each year and wear the same scarf she made for herself. She also knows her husband Matt, who always dives in, will wear the scarf she made for him. Their scarves honor their sons, 3 and 5 years old, who have autism.

“When our kids were first diagnosed with autism, we didn’t want to talk about it. We felt alone,” Anna says. “But with Special Olympics, we met families in the same situation sharing their stories with us. We met remarkable people with special needs living full lives, so we know that our sons will be ok.”

The puzzle-patterned scarves represent the complexity of the autism spectrum, the varying shapes and colors represent the diversity of individuals and families living with autism, and the brightness represents hope that people with autism will lead full lives, according to the Autism Society.

Anna and Matt are just two of the more than 640 ComEd employees, family members and friends who are signed up to participate in the 17th annual Polar Plunge on March 5. Hosted by Special Olympics Chicago at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, the Polar Plunge fundraiser encourages participants to run into Lake Michigan. The event benefits approximately 6,000 athletes from Special Olympics Chicago.

ComEd’s team, known as the “ComEd Coolers,” has raised $271,000 already this year. ComEd raised $175,000 last year, the largest contribution of any participating team on Lake Michigan’s shore. ComEd’s leading contributions to the Special Olympics cause at the Polar Plunge over the last several years have earned the red-shirted Coolers a spot at the head of the plunging line, with hundreds of ComEd volunteers storming the beach to start the event.

“People don’t realize how much this money means to families affected by children with special needs,” Matt says. “Anna and I raise money to help people living with special needs get the services they need to live full, productive lives.”

Otis Wilson (left), retired Bears great, poses with Sandor Williams of ComEd in 2015.

Otis Wilson (left), retired Bears great, poses with Sandor Williams of ComEd in 2015.

Sandor Williams has jumped into the icy waters of Lake Michigan five times as a member of ComEd’s team. It was on his bucket list, and it’s a fun way to give back to those in need, he says.

“It makes me feel good to be able to support ComEd and Special Olympics,” he says. “The Polar Plunge helps bring awareness to those with special needs and encourages others to support the cause. I feel grateful that my contributions can help so many deserving people.”

Jumping into an icy Lake Michigan for the Polar Plunge sounded like fun to Arturo Chavez, so he signed up. This year will be his eighth plunge.

“I learned more about Special Olympics as the years went by, and I realized that I love hearing the stories that people are so eager to share about their family members with special needs,” says Arturo, who jumps with his friends and his colleagues from ComEd.

“I didn’t realize how many friends I have whose lives are touched by special needs,” he says. “They treat special needs not as a handicap, but as a motivation to keep pushing forward and living good lives. When I participate in the Polar Plunge now, I know that I’m freezin’ for a reason.”