It Dawned on Me: Freezin’ reveals region’s warmth, unity

TAKING THE PLUNGE — BN Staff Writer Dawn De Busk (right) takes the plunge at the Freezin' for a Reason polar dip benefitting Harvest Hills Animal Shelter. Her daughter, Dani, is behind her in the white bathing cap. (Rivet Photo)

By Dawn De Busk

BN Columnist

Any hostess knows how much preparation goes into an event that might only last an hour or two.

Whether it is a wedding, a birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner or a local fundraiser, planning and groundwork are required to ensure things go as smoothly as possible. Also, having many helpful hands paves the path to pulling off a successful event.

This January was the first time I was not standing on the sidelines during Freezing for a Reason, the annual fundraiser for Harvest Hills Animal Shelter (HHAS.) In 2013, I finally participated as one of the jumpers. I talked Girl Scout Troop No. 1964 into doing it with me. The group decision to be part of Freezing for a Reason wasn’t that difficult. First of all, we adore animals. Two years ago, we orchestrated a Haunted House and donated the proceeds to Harvest Hills.

Everybody was ecstatic to be supporting the furry critters staying at the region’s animal shelter. Perhaps, when everyone agreed to do it, the reality of dunking into water that should be frozen solid did not truly sink in.

During this polar dip held in Bridgton, the people who braved the icy waters either deserve kudos or a certificate for being crazy. And, I was one of them.

According to HHAS Executive Director Joan McBurnie, “This was one of the coldest years to jump. There was another year when the wind was really blowing off the lake. So this was one of the two coldest years. The coldness does make it harder. I look at the photos. I look at the expressions on people’s faces. There are some people who look miserable.”

Still, the overall scene was positive with some teams entering the water with great fanfare and other folks sporting themed attire, she said.

“After people go into the lake, there is such great excitement and energy. Nobody comes away saying, ‘Boy, that was a complete waste of my time.’ ”

Taking part in the polar plunge into Highland Lake has been a goal of mine for almost five years.

It was not lost on me how so many community members had pulled together for an event that seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. I guess it was always a goal that I could not complete alone. McBurnie said the wintertime fundraiser falls into the category of, “It takes a village.”

“The shelter all by itself, we could not pull off this event without this community’s assistance,” McBurnie said, adding that she sees some of these volunteers once a year — during the week of Bridgton’s Winter Carnival.

“We might not ever come together. We are a shelter; they are a fire department; they are private businesses. But, we all come together for one cause,” she said. “There are so many facets of people. It is extraordinary.”

With any fundraiser, preparations usually begin months ahead of time. No matter how many items have been marked off on the to-do list, there are always things that cannot be done until the day of the event.

One vital detail comes into being a few days beforehand: The hole in the ice that provides an open swimming spot for the dippers. The Bridgton Public Works staff removes the ice from Highland Lake. The job calls for an excavator with a backhoe to remove the large pieces of lake ice.

Like falling snowflakes, “Every single year, the ice is different,” McBurnie said.

“One year, they had to cut the ice twice. Seriously, there was 20 inches of ice; and then, it froze again. The gorgeous pieces of ice were unbelievable.”

After the public works crew completes the ice removal at Highland Lake, the owner of A-Plus Plumbing and Heating arrives and sets up a pump to keep the water circulating so the ice doesn’t refreeze. A-Plus stays on McBurnie’s speed dial. During Winter Carnival preparations, the Bridgton Police Department keeps an eye on the hole — for public safety reasons, and to report any problems with the water-circulation machines. Likewise, the Bridgton Fire Department members roll up their sleeves and assist with ice removal as well as using a fire hose to fill up the hot tubs on Saturday morning.

Talk about killing two birds with one stone, or rather saving two cats with one pledge. Employees at Bridgton Hospital get their required practice by setting up the facility’s hazardous-materials tent, which doubles as the women’s changing tent. Then, the Oxford/Cumberland County Dive team completes training hours under the ice.

At noon on jump day, it was mitten weather as friendly volunteers worked around the wind to register jumpers and count pledge money.

(An hour leaves plenty of pace time to psyche up or chicken out.)

At 1 p.m., my mind was more focused on the activity than the temperature of the lake. Momentarily, my brain did step in and question why I was exposing my body to dangerously cold water.

Around me, there were the supportive smiles of the people who stood on the shoreline – taking the towels of the jumpers. There was the steady, serene presence of the rescue crew in the water. In the women’s tent, there were words of congratulations and pats on the back.

McBurnie said all the groups of people who do their part in the fundraiser, do it so well it is “like a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine.”

“It is just one of my more fun events. You’d think it would be nerve-racking, but it isn’t because everyone works together,” she said.

Her “thank you list” was long, as is the “thank you list” I have mentally compiled to everyone involved in Freezing in 2013 and for the past 11 years.

I must list yet another warm item: The hooded sweatshirts. According to McBurnie, the event sponsors basically pay for the cost of the sweatshirts.

“People love their sweatshirts. On any day of the week, I go into Hannaford in Bridgton, and I’ll see people wearing them. I see a rainbow of colors from different years. It’s great,” the animal shelter’s executive director said.

Cool, I finally did my part. I did what my heart had desired to do: Participate. Go into some freezing water on a winter’s day with some friends, and raise some money to support the wellbeing of some dogs and cats that I do not own.

Yes, I am giving myself a pint-sized pat on my back. On the other hand, I admire the people who raised $1,000; and those who came out dripping from head to toe. Next year, I vow to do even better.

For now, I will be one of those people in the community who wears my Freezing for a Reason sweatshirt in public. It totally makes sense: The sweatshirt represents a worthy cause plus it is really warm and comfortable.

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