TURK LAKE — Jim Dennis is overwhelmed. He is surrounded by insane people. And he’s loving it.
Flooded with emails, phone calls and Facebook comments, Dennis, coordinator of the annual Polar Plunge fundraiser event for Montcalm County, is once again gathering pledges from brave souls who will “take the plunge” into the cold waters of Turk Lake to raise funds for local Special Olympics athletes.
Dressed in fun costumes and fulfilling their pledge from all who donated for their leap of bravery, the “plungers” will gather together for a group photo just before 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, which is when the real fun begins.
A correctional officer at Ionia’s Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, Dennis, an Elsie resident, has coordinated a Polar Plunge fundraiser event in Montcalm County every February for the past five years, and every year the event is growing.
This year, despite the bitter cold, the number of participants is still strong, having as many as 100 applications in as of Wednesday. Last year, there were 108 participants. Dennis is hoping to raise $36,000 this year, which is what the Polar Plunge raised last year.
“I’ve never done this before, and the funny thing is I hate being cold,” laughed 31-year-old Stephanie Gillespie of Greenville, who has signed up to jump into Turk Lake and is aiming to raise $400. “It should be fun. I get to wear a costume. But I’m going to be a little scared and it’ll probably be a little awful there for a bit.”
Gillespie’s technique of approach will probably be similar to many leaps that day.
“I’m just going to cannonball right into it. Get it over quick,” she laughed.
Gillespie, who has a younger sister, Ashley, who has Down Syndrome, said at first she signed up because she thought it would be daring and fun, but when she read the registration packet she realized how important the fundraiser was for Special Olympics, which she and her family have been involved in volunteering for in the past.
“This event is fun, for sure, but it’s for a really good cause,” she said. “I feel obligated to do this now.”
Terry Dowdell, 40, of Greenville, plans to make the jump with a few coworkers from Mersen Electrical Power in Greenville, which is one of the sponsors of the event.
“I’ve only watched others do it,” Dowdell said. “I decided I wanted to try something new and challenge myself. I expect it to be very cold, but I think it will be fun and leave a lasting impression on me.”
The fundraising event is one of 30 held across the state for Special Olympics and works in unison with Michigan State Police’s annual summer Torch Run event.
Montcalm County’s event had been held at Clifford Lake Inn near Stanton the past five years, but when the historic restaurant closed abruptly last November, Dennis had to find a new venue, and quickly.
“When Clifford Lake Inn closed suddenly, I thought we were going to take a hit in numbers,” Dennis said. “I was worried because that area was very supportive of the event. A lot of money was raised in that area. But since we’ve connected with Turk Lake Bar, we’ve had more businesses and corporations helping us out. And the number of plungers looks like it’ll be just as good, if not better, than last year.”
Turk Lake Bar manager Mary Rees, daughter of owner Tom Smith, said the Polar Plunge is likely to be the biggest event the bar will host all year.
“We are very excited,” she said. “It’s something we’ve always wanted to do.”
Rees said there will be live music, which will begin at 1 p.m., and the bar will have exclusive craft beers on tap from Perrin Brewery of Comstock Park.
With this winter’s polar vortex being a hot topic, the concern of frigid temperatures has been more pressing for the event than ever before.
Dennis said the water is usually 33 degrees, which, he said, “would be a hot tub compared with the temperatures we’ve been having now,” but he expects temperatures to be above 20 degrees next weekend, similar to last year’s event.
The Montcalm County dive team, which will be on hand to assist plungers as they dive in and get out, will determine if temperatures are too cold.
“If temperatures are in the 20s, we’ll be fine,” Dennis said. “Besides, real plungers like it as cold as possible.”
Dennis said if in fact it is too cold to allow people to dive in the water, the event will be rescheduled, but he said he is confident the event will go as planned.
“Everything is a go right now,” he said.
To donate or for more information on the Turk Lake Polar Plunge, go to first giving.com/polarplunge/stanton14 online.