The winter season is slowly beginning to settle in Wisconsin – temperatures dipping below freezing, several inches of snow blanketing the landscape and lakes icing over.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again – time to jump in Big St. Germain Lake and spend 30 seconds in the icy waters for a good cause – the thirteenth annual Polar Bear Plunge. Participants will take the plunge near Fibber’s Bar and Restaurant in St. Germain, Saturday, Jan. 5, at noon.
“We see something crazy every year,” Mike Wolf, Polar Bear Plunge founder, said. “We have people that show up in costumes ... [and people] that will jump in several times. We’ll have people bring in three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine thousand dollars in pledges that they’ve raised. To me, that’s crazy. People really take this event to heart and they try to get as much money as they can.”
All proceeds from the event benefit the local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Angel On My Shoulder, a charity thats mission is to improve the quality of life of those who are living with or are affected by cancer.
“Angel is a local charity. They help throughout the state of Wisconsin and the Northwoods, and they help everybody that’s affected by cancer, not only the patient ... but the entire family. That’s why we decided to go with Angel,” Wolf said, explaining why the nonprofit was chosen as the beneficiary of the Polar Bear Plunge fundraiser.
“A frosty event like the Polar Bear Plunge – it’s amazing because it warms your heart,” Lolly Rose, founder and executive director of Angel On My Shoulder, said. “I’m just in awe of these people that will get out there and jump in a frozen lake to help other people. I think the warmth inside of them gets them all through it.”
Winter Camp Angel
All of the Plunge’s proceeds benefit Angel – but more specifically, the charity’s Winter Camp Angel in January. Free of cost, the winter camp – as well as Summer Camp Angel, Camp Teen Angel and Angel Adventures – is a weekend getaway for children experiencing cancer through a parent, sibling or grandparent, or who have lost a loved one through cancer.
“The camps were designed to give kids a safe place to have fun and provide relief from the stresses at home that they’re going through. It gives them an opportunity to be with other kids like themselves,” Rose said. “It’s an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding and care. We’re all in this together – that’s the beautiful thing about it.”
There’s a cycle that’s created in the camps – the ultimate pay-it-forward.
“Many of the counselors that are there with the kids at camp were actually campers themselves,” Rose said. “So when they’re old enough they give back in that way, which is a wonderful thing because who knows it better than those kids? They can help these kids get through what they went through. That’s what makes it so outstanding.”
The total cost for each child to attend the winter camp comes in at about $300.
“Whatever we can raise, just divide that by 300,” Wolf said. “Last year we did, let’s say roughly $30,000, and if you divide that by 300 you’re going to get 100 kids. So 100 kids went to camp last year at absolutely no cost to Angel On My Shoulder. That’s a cool thing.”
And with the weekend respite held at Camp Manito-wish, there’s no shortage of activities for the campers.
“Angel brings these kids in from all over the state, and they’re treated like kings and queens for the weekend,” Wolf said. “They get to go snowmobiling, ice fishing, take sleigh rides, build arts and crafts, and climb the rock-climbing wall. They have anything their heart desires that weekend. It’s basically a way for them to get away from the situation that they’re in.”
And thanks to today’s technology, the campers are able to build a support network and make lasting friendships with each other.
“A lot of these kids from all over the state will meet each other and they realize that they’re not alone in the situation they’re in,” Wolf said. “And because of texting and social media, they’re able to keep in contact with each other and build great friendships for many years.”
Taking the first plunge
Since its inception 12 years ago, the Polar Bear Plunge has raised $280,000. Last year alone 101 took the plunge and raised $33,000.
And it all began over a Friday night fish fry.
“My wife and I went out for fish fry [at Fibber’s], and we were talking about things we could do to pick up the boring time of the year – the time of the year where there’s some snowmobiling going on, but there’s kind of a lull,” Wolf said.
Lo and behold, the idea for a Northwoods polar plunge came up.
“At that point right there, we started asking people around the bar if they would help out and people agreed. It was born over fish fry, plain and simple.”
But even with all the plans for the inaugural Plunge laid out, Wolf said he was still concerned that no one would take the plunge – so he concocted a back-up plan.
“We asked a group of 10 people to show up and do this, and it actually turned out that we had 40 people show up,” he said. “And some of the people that jumped that day are still jumping. They’ve jumped every year up to this point and they’ve become volunteers that help us every year as well.”
One of those dedicated jumpers is Dick Lemke.
“When it initially started, I did it because my wife said that I’d probably be crazy enough to do it, and she had cancer at the time so I said, ‘I’m going to do it for you,’” Lemke said.
Though he tragically lost his wife to cancer in 2008, Lemke kept taking the icy Polar Bear dip and raising money for Angel.
“My family got involved and they started doing it, and then we volunteered and I ended up on the [Polar Bear Plunge] board and did all kinds of work for Lolly Rose, who started Angel On My Shoulder,” he said. “And that’s how ended up meeting my second wife, who volunteers at Angel On My Shoulder.”
His work with Angel as the witer camp coordinator allows him to see first-hand the result of the Polar Bear Plunge’s contribution to the charity.
“I’m very lucky that way that I get to see the end result,” Lemke said. “It gives kids a whole weekend where they don’t have to think or worry about cancer, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Angel On My Shoulder
Founded in 1995 after she lost her husband to cancer, Rose started Angel On My Shoulder in his honor.
“It was a year after my husband passed away from lung cancer. Our family got together and wanted to make something good out of something bad, so we created Angel On My Shoulder,” Rose said. “It’s a beautiful thing. He would have loved it. He loved kids and he loved people, and it’s giving back and making a positive difference in their lives – helping them through what we went through. That’s how Angel came to be.”
What sets Angel apart from other cancer foundations is the fact that it focuses on the entire family impacted by cancer as well as the patient.
“Lolly knows how the family is affected because she had little kids at the time. She knows how the kids were affected, how she was affected,” Wolf said. “And that’s basically what her goal was to do – to help people in the way that she knows she needed to be helped. She does a great job, she really does. She’s an awesome lady.”
Another unique aspect of Angel is it’s completely volunteer-based with only a 4 percent operating cost – 96 cents of every dollar donated goes right back to the services that the charity provides.
“It takes a village, and that’s what Angel does,” Rose said. “It’s just a beautiful coming together and being there for other people that need you.”
Angel relies solely on private and corporate donations and fundraisers, “like the Polar Bear Plunge, for instance,” she noted.
“[The Polar Bear Plunge] is a very, very large fundraiser for us and there are awesome people putting it on. Mike is an amazing man,” Rose said. “Everybody has the same passion. Everybody has the same mission – we all want to come together and help other people. That’s what it’s all about.”
For more information about Angel On My Shoulder or to make a donation, visit www.angelonmyshoulder.org, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’m very up-close and personal with people we help. I’m very blessed that they’re open to sharing their pain and stories with me so we can help them,” Rose said. “You have to know what’s wrong before you can help. That’s very, very important.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com.