For the first time since the event was organized nine years ago, a team of Maryville High School students and staff will participate in the Polar Plunge, an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics in which dozens of people dive into the icy waters of Lake Contrary south of St. Joseph.
The 2012 plunge brought in $60,000 for the organization, which hopes to raise $65,000 at this year's event, set to take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16.
MHS's participation reflects a continuing effort to make Special Olympics athletics programs readily available to local students coping with developmental and cognitive disabilities.
Part of that initiative includes the Maryville Hounds, a Special Olympics basketball team consisting of high school students formed last year through the efforts of Diane Francis, guidance counselor Ashlee Graves, special education teacher Laureen Graves and other volunteers.
In January, the Hounds competed in the Northwest Area Basketball Tournament, which brought more than 250 Special Olympics athletes to Bearcat Arena for a day of competition and comradeship. The tournament was the latest in a series of high-profile Special Olympics events hosted by Northwest Missouri State University that have increased awareness and support for the program both at the high school and countywide.
James, who serves as MHS Student Council sponsor, said student participation in the tournament — several served as event volunteers — led to an invitation from Special Olympics officials to take part in the Polar Plunge. A number of students, most of them Student Council members, quickly signed on.
For the privilege of diving into ice-cold water, the half-dozen students and two MHS staff members — teacher Marilyn Wilmes and guidance secretary Holly Cronk — were tasked with raising about $600 in support of Special Olympics programs across northwest Missouri.
In pursuit of that goal, Cronk said the group, which also includes a number of non-plungers, held a series of "very successful" bake sales this week and is planning a 50-50 raffle at an upcoming basketball game.
Cronk joked that the bake sales may have proven popular due to new federal nutrition guidelines that have cut calories for school lunches and taken candy bars and other sweets out of MHS vending machines.
Brownies, Cookies and other sweet treats have been selling like hotcakes, she said.
On a serious note, she said the growing Special Olympics buzz at MHS has a lot to do with Francis, whose son Tony, is a member of the Hounds.
"She has done an incredible amount of baking," Cronk said. "She has really put the pizzazz in our effort, and we're just blessed that she's helped out with that."
Cronk herself was inspired to "take the plunge" after watching her daughter, Army National Guard Pvt. Haley Cronk, participate in a similar event in Kansas City. Haley is currently at a military base in Idaho preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.
Page 2 of 2 - Asked if she had any trepidation about jumping into a northwest Missouri lake in the middle of winter, Holly Cronk said no, not after watching Haley.
"If my daughter can do it, I can do it," she said. "And so can everybody else."
Another plunger, MHS freshman Paxson Haws, expressed much the same spirit, though tempered with a bit of reality.
"I think it's going to be really fun," she said. "But I also think it's going to be really cold."