A Sound Way To Spend A Birthday: Taking A Dip For Special Olympics

Most elementary school-age students, when asked what they want to do for their birthday, opt for gatherings with friends. Paintball. Movie and pizza. Going to a sporting event.

When Joseph Doherty started thinking about his 11th birthday, he decided to go for a swim. A quick one.

“Jo-Jo,” as he is known, didn’t host an indoor pool party last Saturday for his birthday. Jo-Jo participated in a Special Olympics Connecticut (SOCT) Penguin Plunge. He woke up early, went with his mother and some friends for a ride to Compo Beach in Westport, and joined nearly 250 other hardy souls to run into Long Island Sound. He did it, he said this week, because he wanted to do something for others.

SOCT uses Penguin Plunge events, among others, to do fundraising for its programs. The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competitions in a variety of sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Each year, SOCT hosts more than 70 tournaments and competitions in 27 different sports.

Jo-Jo is the younger son of Sharon and Dan Doherty of Sandy Hook. He has an older brother, Patrick.

The idea for participating in the SOCT Penguin Plunge, Jo-Jo said this week, came from a family friend. Carl Wheeler was telling Dan Doherty about his participation in previous Penguin Plunge events, and that he had done the fundraiser a few times to raise funds for the daughter of a client. While Mr Wheeler and Mr Doherty were talking about the Westport event, Jo-Jo learned that it was coming up, and he decided he wanted to try it for himself.

“I love penguins,” the cherubic boy said March 10, two days after his very successful efforts. “It was called Penguin Plunge, so I wanted to do it,” he said.

On Saturday, Jo-Jo wore a pair of water shoes, shorts with penguins on them, and a penguin hat. The majority of participants wore bathing suits. Most had bow ties, given to them by SOCT to denote their level of fundraising. Many women wore two-piece suits and some men were seen in skimpy versions of male bathing suits; plenty in the crowd opted to run in covered in T-shirts, however.

Many in the crowd went all out with costumes. At least one young man and one young woman showed up in full penguin costumes. A few women sported tutus and feather boas, while other people had penguin dolls attached to hats. One woman, said Jo-Jo, showed up wearing a fancy gown and a string of pearls.

“She was all dressed up,” he said. “She said she was supposed to be Rose from [the movie] Titanic.”

 Penguin Plungers were of all ages. Men and women, first-times and returning veterans.

Each participant was assigned to a wave, or group. When it was their turn to line up, there was a countdown and then each wave of people ran into the water.

“I was a little nervous, but excited at the same time” when the countdown started for his group, said Jo-Jo. “But I just ran toward the water.”

He did not hesitate, he said, but he did remember thinking “Oh God, it’s cold!” once he reached the water.

In order for a plunge to count, a participant has to go into the Sound far enough to get the individual’s head wet. Jo-Jo went under water completely.

“I kinda belly flopped in,” he said, “and stayed in for I think about 20 seconds.”

That was enough time, and he was certainly covered with enough water. The Plunge counted.

Last weekend’s Penguin Plunge was one of at least ten being sponsored this season by Special Olympics Connecticut.

According to Lisa Markham, the senior director of special events for Special Olympics Connecticut, there were 236 Plungers for last weekend’s event.

“We raised $100,000,” she said March 12. According to SOCT.org, the goal for the Westport event was $90,000.

Those who want to participate in an SOCT Penguin Plunge need to raise a minimum of $100 in donations. Between asking relatives and friends for donations and other efforts, Jo-Jo raised more than $1,000.

One recent Sunday, he spent four hours outside Bagel Delight on Church Hill Road, asking passersby if they would consider helping him with a donation. During that four-hour window he collected $450.

“People were so pleased that he was doing this for Special Olympics,” said Eunice Lavery, owner of the bagel and coffee shop. “They were touched at his devotion and enthusiasm, and his empathy was contagious.

“He was so excited, and they were happy to be generous,” she said.

Jo-Jo’s 2014 fundraising efforts are not yet finished. He has received permission from faculty at St Rose of Lima School, where he is a fifth grade student, to host a Dress Down Day on March 17.

“To participate, each student pays $2 if they want to dress down for the day and wear green,” Sharon Doherty explained.

He is also thinking about next year already.

“As soon as he came out of the water, he said ‘I wanna do this again next year!’” said Sharon Doherty.

If he hesitates before then, he already has a challenge that will push him toward the Sound next year.

“My dad told me, ‘If you raise $2,000 next year, I’ll Plunge with you,’” said Jo-Jo.

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