Two of the plungers at Shepard High School's Polar Plunge on March 10. (Photos by Kelly White)

Two of the plungers at Shepard High School's Polar Plunge on March 10. (Photos by Kelly White)

Shepard students take Polar Plunge for Special Olympics

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By Kelly White

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shepard High School students once again took the plunge last week. The Polar Plunge, that is, which is a huge fundraising effort benefiting Special Olympics and the athletes. Participants take in pledges from family, friends and more before taking the literal plunge into chilly waters.

Shepard’s POWER PE students, which stands for Physical Opportunities with Exceptional Rewards were the ones taking the dive this year on March 10. In this program, students apply to work as buddies or mentors for their peers with disabilities in the physical education setting.

“I choose to support Special Olympics because I love the POWER PE program,” Sofia Cerullo, 18, of Worth, said. “This program is very special to me. I wanted to plunge to help bring awareness to treating everyone with kindness. Some of these buddies I have grown to create awesome friendships with. Our buddies are awesome students, and we have to treat them with the respect we give everybody.”

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Dean of Students at Shepard High School, Nick Bax, took the plunge on March 10 at the high school’s Polar Plunge.

The Polar Plunge took place on the Shepard football field, due to the school still not approving field trips. Special Olympics came to the school at 13049 S. Ridgeland Ave., Palos Heights, to set up a temporary plunge site with inflatable pools filled with ice water.

“This is one of my favorite days of the year because the students get so into it,” Ashley Lythberg, Special Education teacher at Shepard and Special Olympics Coordinator, said. “They go all out for fundraising, spirit days, events and celebrating the inclusive environment at Shepard. It is so cool to be part of something the kids take so much pride and ownership in and get everyone out of their comfort zone in taking the plunge for a cause so near and dear to the Shepard community.”

Lythberg was responsible for organizing the event along with co-POWER PE instructor, Scott Richardson.

This was the school’s sixth year of taking the Polar Plunge for its POWER team.

The first three years, participants plunged as a team in Joliet. The 2020 event was cancelled the day before due to the pandemic and last year’s theme was, ‘It’s not where you plunge or how you plunge, it’s that you plunge’.

“We continued our fundraising efforts and students got creative in ways that they plunged from home since we couldn’t be together as a group – slip and slides, ice buckets, baby pools, cold baths, etcetera and sent in a video so we could be together virtually,” Lythberg said.

This year was the school’s biggest team yet with 56 plungers made up of mostly students, some staff and a couple of alumni and family members.

“This year was extra special because we were finally able to plunge as a team again,” Lythberg said. “The kids were very disappointed the last couple years as this is something kids have looked forward to in years past. We came back bigger and better this year with our largest team and continued fundraising efforts. The kids have been really passionate and creative with their fundraising efforts and we look forward to being back together for this event.”

At Shepard, there are three Special Olympics and Unified teams: soccer, basketball and track & field. The mentors in the school’s POWER PE program play a vital role in the success of these programs, as they volunteer as unified partners, coaches and fans.

All money raised goes directly to Special Olympics Illinois in the region that supports our Astro Special Olympic athletes. Since 2017, Shepard has raised nearly $70,000 for this amazing organization. This year, the program set a goal of $10,000 alone.

“Students really feel a sense of pride and ownership over this event and the POWER program as a whole,” Lythberg said. “The friendships that they develop with their peers with disabilities extends far beyond the school day and this is just one way they can give back to the programs that support them.”

The school celebrated with a whole week of festivities and spirit days that lead up to the plunge and students showed a great deal of creativity and commitment in their fundraising efforts and their support for Special Olympics.

“Special Olympics has changed my life in so many ways,” Taylor Becker, 17, of Alsip, said. “I go home every day from school with a smile on my face because of POWER PE that day. The buddies have impacted my life so much. I’ve made so many memories with the buddies, had endless laughs with them.”

Becker said she was happy to be back taking the plunge again in person this year.

“Due to Covid I plunged at home with my sister,” she said. “We did everything we could last year through zoom to stay connected with the athletes, but I’m super excited and happy to be back in person with them. Special Olympics is a great organization to take part in, they create awesome opportunities for the athletes.”

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Shepard’s POWER PE students, which stands for Physical Opportunities with Exceptional Rewards, took the Polar Plunge on March 10 at the school, 13049 S. Ridgeland Ave., Palos Heights.

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