By SCOOTER MACMILLAN
A group of students from Champlain Valley Union High may or may not see their shadow on Groundhog Day, but they will definitely see their splash.
That’s because at 11 a.m. on Feb. 2, they will be jumping into the waters of Lake Champlain to support the Special Olympics Vermont in the annual Penguin Plunge.
How many students will make the immersion for those with intellectual disabilities?
No one knows at this point.
“The week before, the number spikes so we’ve got no idea now,” said CVU math teacher Peter Booth, who’s organized the school’s contingent for the event for the past seven years. “It’s not unusual for kids to walk in with a handful of checks and their waivers signed.”
Those under 18 need a parent or guardian’s permission to take part in the event involving a quick dip into freezing cold water off the King Street dock in downtown Burlington. Principal Adam Bunting describes Booth as “the primary cheerleader and motivational force” behind the yearly numbing jump.
But this year, others have had to organize the school’s representation for the event and recruit the frosty plungers.
Booth is scheduled for shoulder surgery and his doctors have prescribed a chill pill for him and his efforts in organizing the CVU contingent in the Penguin Plunge.
Bunting has been sharing a photo on Twitter of nine folks who’ve stepped up to fill Booth’s shoes with the caption: “Redhawks, this is how many people it takes to fill in for Peter Booth! Our Penguin Plunge cheerleader is on the injured reserve and we need to hit 200 plungers. Join the team! We need your support!”
The high school has been participating in the Penguin Plunge for seven years, which is how long Booth has been involved. In 2012, in hopes of making the plunge a school-wide event, Booth agreed to shave his head if the students raised $15,000.
“I thought there was no way they’d raise that much,” Booth said.
And you can guess the rest of the story: He ended up shorn. Ten kids jumped into the water and the school raised $27,000.
Unified sports teams
Booth has four children who have special needs and he knows how much Special Olympics means to them, so it is a cause close to his heart.
Four years ago, CVU started a unified basketball team, where special needs kids and members of the school basketball team play together. In 2013-14, the unified basketball team went to the state championships at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium.
Booth said at least a third of the students at the school showed up for the game.
“If you’d taken a photo of the kids that were there, it looked like a regular sporting event,” said Booth.
Bunting brought his children to the game and the principal told Booth after the game that he was so glad that his kids could see “a community pull together like that.”
Last year, members of the team made up most of the Special Olympics Vermont team that went to Seattle for the Special Olympics USA games, where they won a gold medal.
Now, in addition to basketball, CVU has unified teams that compete in bocce, bowling and snowshoeing.
Booth has firsthand experience with how much this means to those with special needs. While special needs students are in school there are programs and plenty of opportunities to interact with others.
“Then they graduate and all those programs disappear,” said Booth. “Kids who are out of school can become isolated and homebound.”
Because of unified sports, Booth said that his oldest son, Jesse, has a close circle of friends.
“It’s been very important to him,” Booth said.
Hair today, shorn tomorrow
As an organizing strategy, the school used to set goals that, if achieved, would involve Booth doing some embarrassing and barbarian barbering. Over time, though, the school has switched from monetary goals to aiming for recruiting a plethora of plungers.
“We wanted to emphasize the concept of community, so four years ago, I said, ‘If we get 200 kids to take the plunge, I’ll get my hair cut.’ We got 167 that year. The following year we got 169,” Booth said. And both years he went unshorn.
By last year, Booth hadn’t had a haircut in three years. He had a ponytail. He made a pitch to the school saying that his wife was sick of his long hair and he really needed haircut.
“Last year, we got 201 kids,” Booth said. “At Winter Carnival, the kids chopped my hair off.”
The CVU students also made a sizable contribution to the overall effort. Organizers last year said the event raised $527,000. Of that, more than $53,000 came from the donations from the CVU group.
This year, the CVU group of organizers hasn’t set a goal. They simply are encouraging students to raise money and take the plunge for Special Olympics because this is the way they treat each other, Booth said.
“This is just what we do: We take care of each other in this community and we do the Penguin Plunge because we take care of the people in this building.”
Sasha Fisher, senior manager of events and partnerships with Special Olympics Vermont, explained that the student part of the Penguin Plunge event on Feb. 2 is called the Cool Schools Penguin Plunge and it takes place at 11 a.m. at Burlington’s Waterfront Park. She said they were expecting 21 schools and 500-700 students to participate.
Champlain Valley Union High has consistently had the most Penguin Plungers and raised the most money.
“They’ve had the largest team in the Penguin Plunge, including the adult teams,” said Fisher.
At noon, the adult plungers dive in, many on corporate teams dedicated to becoming dunking frozen nuts.
Booth said on multiple occasions he’s watched a corporate rugby team march slowly into the water while a bagpiper plays.
“It is one of the best days of the year,” said Principal Bunting. “The kids are so energized, and everyone is hooting and hollering. This has an impact on the school. I’ve seen a change in everyone at CVU. Everyone is much more supportive; it’s really a unifying thing.”
To donate to the CVU effort for the Penguin Plunge, visit give.specialolympicsvermont.org/team/189196.