Chicagoans make a splash in Lake Michigan, raising over $35,000 for families in need

By Sally Ehrmann
Medill Reports

More than 300 brave souls took a dip in freezing-cold Lake Michigan on Jan. 25 to raise money for three Chicago families in need, part of the shivering tradition of the annual Chicago Polar Bear Plunge.

The event raised over $35,000 for families, to be split evenly. Jumpers paid a $30 registration fee and then chose to set up funding pages to raise more money for the cause from their donors. Other donations came from sponsors like Tito’s Vodka, FT Cares Foundation and Blake’s Seed Based foods.

“We have three families this year,” said Saoirse O’Malley, of the organization’s family selection board. “Vanessa Hernandez is a single mom. She’s currently living apart from her children so we’re hoping to help with rent for her so she can be reunited with her kids. We have Diana Cadena. She’s a grandmother. She has four children of her own and one grandson. Her partner was recently incarcerated, and she is the sole breadwinner. So, just hoping to help her with day-to-day bills.”

The Robinson family also benefited. “Both parents have varying degrees of medical illnesses that they need monthly prescription costs covered,” O’Malley said. “They also have a son with asthma and those costs are pretty hefty. They’re all employed, but not making enough to live comfortably. We’re basically taking all the funds that we raise from the jump, 100% of the proceeds go to the families, and we issue out checks over the course of the year and then hopefully help them get on their feet a little bit.”

Brian Marshal started the tradition in 2002 when he and a few friends jumped in Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day just for fun. In 2003, he began raising funds for a cousin’s husband who needed a double lung transplant.  By the next year, the benefit plunge took off.

“Once we started getting random people we didn’t know, this became more than just a family event and that changed to now, this is a Chicago event,” Marshal said. “We see people calling us up because they found us on our website. We’ve got some people who I don’t know who they are, but we’ve met once a year here. They’ve now done this for nine straight years. I love it. It’s becoming a tradition, and we really like to celebrate that.”

Since 2003, the Chicago Polar Bear Club has donated to more than 30 families and raised over $400,000 for Chicago families in need.

Photo at top: Ald. James Cappleman (D-46th Ward) participated in this year’s plunge after a “double dog dare” from his neighbor. “The fun part is running in,” Cappleman said. “There’s all this exhilaration. It’s a great cause. It’s good for the spirit.” (Sally Ehrmann/MEDILL)