KENNEBUNK — The brave souls who plunged into the Atlantic Ocean at Gooch’s Beach in order to raise funds and awareness for Caring Unlimited on Saturday, Jan. 5, kept warm before and after their feat in the usual ways. Some kept their clothes on before shedding them for their bathing suits, and then quickly redressed afterwards. Others wrapped themselves in towels. One woman wore a bathrobe.
Paul Christen kept warm against the wind and the chilly temperature in his own way. The Minnesota native – now a resident of Kennebunkport – wore a block of cheese on his head. You know, like the ones that fans of the Green Bay Packers wear. You would think that Christen’s cheese hat would not be enough to keep him toasty – all he wore otherwise were a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and his Crocs – but hear him out.
“Because cheese comes from what? Milk. And milk comes from what? Cows. Cows do what? Generate heat,” Christen said.
Christen joked before the plunge that you’d think he’d know better than to go rushing into the Atlantic after growing up in a Midwestern state known for its frigid winters. He did live in Florida before moving to Maine, after all.
“But here we are,” he smiled and said before he and everyone else dipped into the rolling sea. “It’s a crazy event and they’re doing it for a good charity. I would not come down here and go swimming for the heck of it. But it’s for charity, so I’ll put on my crazy hat and go for a swim.”
A good cause, indeed. Based in Sanford, Caring Unlimited is a nonprofit organization that serves as a resource center for those who are experiencing or are affected by domestic violence in York County. Every January, the organization holds its annual Atlantic Plunge, during which participants raise funds through pledges and contributions and race headlong into the ocean for a quick, icy dip. This frigid fundraiser – the temp was in the 30's on Saturday but has been known to sink to zero some years – started in 2002 and has since raised around $285,000, according to Emily Gormley, the media spokesperson for Caring Unlimited. Last weekend’s event alone raised nearly $20,000, she added.
“The highest fundraiser this year raised over $2,000 on his own and won a $250 L.L. Bean gift card for his efforts,” Gormley said.
Ryan Liberty, of Caring Unlimited’s board of directors, helped out on Saturday, rallying the plungers with a megaphone and counting down to that moment when everyone took the plunge. Liberty called the event “terrific,” noting that Caring Unlimited has held it for 18 years now and has “raised over a quarter of a million dollars.”
“All of those dollars go toward domestic violence work in the community,” Liberty said.
Since 1977, Caring Unlimited has offered services, free of charge, that include a 24-hour hotline, an emergency shelter, legal services, and more, for those whose lives are affected by domestic violence.
“The money raised by the Plunge ensures these critical, life-changing programs are available and accessible when people need them,” Gormley said.
Nearly 100 people took the Plunge on Saturday, according to Gormley.
“Every year, we are so humbled by the turnout – the folks who spend the last few weeks of the year raising pledges, then following through by jumping into the ocean on a Saturday in January, all to support Caring Unlimited and raise awareness that domestic violence happens here in York County, and that there is a critical need for supporting and maintaining the services available. It’s inspiring and a lot of fun too!”
Aaron Boulter, of Sanford, would agree. He took the Plunge and afterward called it “enjoyable.” Another plunger could be heard calling the experience “exhilarating.”
Wrapped in a towel, Jessica Younger, also of Sanford, took the Plunge by putting mind over matter.
“I thought, just do it, just do it,” she said moments after emerging from the surf. “It’s cold. My toes are about to fall off.”
Kerry Herlihy, of Gorham, has taken the Plunge for Caring Unlimited for a handful of years now. She was one of the participants who jumped into the water in colder years and found Saturday’s weather agreeable enough.
“The air is nice,” she said. “I did this once when it was just above zero.”
Herlihy called the new-year event a chance to hit the reset button on her life. She used to take the Plunge alongside her partner. He passed away a couple of years ago, and she has since carried on their tradition.
“I do it in honor of him,” she said.
And how did Christen’s cheese-hat work out for him, after the Plunge?
“My legs are still tingly,” he reported, his hat still tilted on his head. “It’s a bit cold, a bit chilly. I’ve got my electric blanket plugged in at home, so I’m good.”