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North Hills Monthly

Hearty Pittsburghers Take the Plunge for Charity

Dec 01, 2014 10:33AM ● By Larry Richert
The last month of the year always creates a whirlwind of activities that builds into an all-out frenzy that leads to New Year’s Day. We all universally share the passing of another year and the determination to make the next better than the last one, no matter what has happened.

For as long as there have been calendars, different cultures have observed this transition. One of the more bizarre traditions, according to Travel and Leisure magazine, includes people in Sao Paulo and La Paz in South America wearing brightly colored underpants to ring in the New Year—red if they’re looking for love, and yellow for money. That image leaves little to the imagination, but does answer the question, “What’s in your wallet?”

The Chinese New Year is observed annually between January 20 and February 20 and is celebrated in part with money passed around in red envelopes. I love Chinese food, but have never received any envelope from anyone at that time of year, unless you count the envelope we all get from the IRS.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have two bookend events that may seem a little ‘out there’ to most of the rest of the planet. The first is the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Plunge on Saturday, Dec. 6. This phenomenon takes place near Heinz Field on the banks of the Ohio River, and helps local law enforcement support the Special Olympics in our state; it has raised $1 million in its first four years of existence. I don’t need to tell you how cold it is around here in December. I have to give them a lot of credit—those who brave the elements and go for full immersion for the sake of charity.

The other big dip is the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Jump that, appropriately enough, helps Project Bundle-up. It takes place on the other side of the city on the Mon Wharf. You certainly need to bundle up after that freeze-frame moment when you hit the water. In both of these events, you take a gaggle of regular citizens and watch them scream as the icy water turns their skin blue in seconds.

Which leads me to ask the obvious question, “Why?”

Why would anyone leave their senses on the shoreline and plunge into the rivers? I know that they are raising much-needed funding, but can’t they just write a check? I suppose that that’s not nearly as exciting. I have participated in many charity fundraisers over the years, including a JELL-O slide back in the day, but I just can’t bring myself to do this.

Oftentimes, participants themselves are at a loss to explain why they do this. When I spoke with KDKA-TV reporter Heather Abraham, who plunged two years ago for the first time, she contemplated my question and then explained that it wasn’t exactly a bucket list item, but that she felt compelled to do “something a little crazy.”

“While working in New York I used to cover the Coney Island version and thought that I would like to try it,” Abraham offered. “Here in Pittsburgh, I wore tight clothing, thinking that it would help. But after the shock of the ice cold water, I had to peel the clothes off and experienced the worst pain in my life next to childbirth!”

She had her daughter the next year and wasn’t able to plunge, and I assumed she was not dipping this year…but I was wrong. Abraham is back in the river without a paddle. She told me that this is nothing compared to the hardcore folks who, on the Friday before the plunge, jump in the river every hour for 24 hours…now that’s crazy!

I hope you find an appropriate way to shed your old self and welcome in the New Year and the new you…but if you want to take the plunge, good luck! I did the Ice Bucket Challenge in August with a few ice cubes in 80 degree weather. Does that count?