Annual fundraiser raises $80,000 to fight cancer

Ben Jordan

More than 750 people jumped into the frigid waters of Portage Lakes State Park on Saturday to raise money for three cancer charities.

The Portage Lakes Polar Bear Club hosted its biggest Polar Bear Jump yet, raising more than $80,000 in pledges. This year the proceeds went toward Stewart’s Caring Place, Camp Quality Ohio and the American Cancer Society.

Seven members of Kent State’s Delta Zeta sorority raised more than $200 for the event. Catherine Wood, Paige DeMattie, Jill Wiegand, Kelsey Strayer, Samantha Stettin, Tiffany Lloyd and Kathrine Perkowski dressed up like turtles for their jump.

“This was on one of our sister’s bucket list,” Wood said. “She asked for girls from the chapter to do it and we were the ones who signed up. We thought it would be a really cool, fun idea.”

Polar Bear Club co-founder Jeff Fulkman said the event, which originated in his backyard, has grown immensely over the past nine years. Fulkman said his neighbor, Kelly Pariso, came up with the idea behind the jump.

“Kelly said, ‘Let’s go jump in the lake. Let’s cut a hole in the ice and we’ll jump in like polar bears.’ I told him we should rethink that,” he said.

Fulkman said a couple weeks later, Kelly came back with the idea to host a jump for charity in his backyard. Two months later they had the jump with 46 participants and raised $12,000 for the Akron Children’s Hospital. He said the event outgrew their neighborhood so they moved it to Portage Lakes State Park, where it has remained for the past six years.

“We have a crew of about 50 who come every year,” Fulkman said. “Friends, family and neighbors volunteer every year and help us run it. It runs like clockwork now.”

Marian Shoemaker and Elaina Stouffer have been volunteering at the event since it began in 2004. Each year it goes to a different charity and this is the first year participants can choose between three different ones. They said they love watching the people who dress up every year.

“Some people dress up in the same costumes every year and get here early and tailgate in the parking lot,” Shoemaker said. “There’s a pirate who always comes and we’ve had a skinny dipper one year.”

“We let him jump before they arrested him,” Stouffer said.

Shoemaker said the water is usually frozen and they cut a large hole in the ice for the jumpers. This year, a 60-foot floating dock stretched from the shore so people could jump. James Heim, Lieutenant of the New Franklin Fire Department, said the open water is much easier and safer for the jumpers and emergency prevention staff.

“Basically we’re here for support,” Heim said. “We have our guys in the cold water exposure suits to help people get in and out of the water, they’re a neoprene suit that is lined. They’re waterproof and offer some floatation as well as warmth.”

Heim said the problem with a frozen over lake is there’s always a risk somebody can get caught underneath the ice. He also said people could fall on the slippery surface or get hypothermia from the freezing water.

“People don’t realize as soon as they get wet, with a little bit of wind their core temperature can drop rather quickly,” Heim said. “And when your core temperature drops that’s when you can get delirious and problems occur.”

The Polar Bear Club provided heated changing tents for jumpers, so they would stay safe from hypothermia or sickness.

Jeff Fulkman said the event will be at the park from now on and he hopes it will be even bigger next year.

“Nobody’s ever been hurt, nobody’s ever died, and it’s always a great time,” Fulkman said. “Next year will be our tenth anniversary so it should be good.”

Contact Ben Jordan at [email protected].