The Polar Bears are motivated by a touch of madness, camaraderie and a common goal: to honor the memory of Paulie Bradley and to keep his young spirit alive in others.
We sat down with Pete Meyers, one of the founding members of the Long Beach Polar Bears, to learn how a simple idea turned into a community fundraising powerhouse.
Q. Tell me how two guys deciding to jump into the ocean in February turned into a $6.3 million community fundraiser.
A. Kevin McCarthy and I were friends and neighbors in Long Beach, Long Island. We were talking one day about doing the New Year’s Day jump with the Coney Island Polar Bears, but I couldn’t make it that year. So, we decided to do our own jump on Super Bowl Sunday down at our beach. It was great, and we decided to make it a tradition. We mentioned it to our other neighbors and the following year 18 people showed up. I made sweatshirts with polar bears on them for fun. That year, Mike and Patty Bradley, also neighbors, asked if we could turn the jump into a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish in honor of their son Paulie, who had recently died of leukemia at the age of 4. Patty loved the sweatshirts and thought we could sell them and donate the proceeds. We immediately said yes. Why? Because that’s what Long Beach neighbors do. They help each other. They support each other. It’s a very tight-knit community.
Q. But how did it grow from a neighborhood outing to a massive community event?
A. At first it was literally just our friends. Then their friends started showing up. It grew through word of mouth. This was before there was social media. It was just friends telling friends, neighbors telling neighbors. Long Beach is a very special community. People take care of each other. When someone says, “I’m doing a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. Will you support me?” they do.
The first year as a fundraiser about 40 people showed up and we raised $7,800, enough to grant one wish (in those days). In no time, hundreds of people were showing up.
At that point the city of Long Beach started to get involved for safety reasons. They could have shut the event down. Instead they chose to throw their support behind it and Make-A-Wish, taking on responsibility for lifeguards, police and EMS services. And when they got involved, they also helped spread the word.
Q. Were you surprised by how many people responded?
A. We thought it was crazy! We never, ever imagined it would get this big. The city of Long Beach now estimates that about 20,000 people show up each year and between 5,000 and 7,000 of them actually jump in the ocean.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a fundraiser in their own community?
A. Well, if you want to do a polar plunge, or any fundraising event, Super Bowl Sunday is a great day for it! People are always looking for things to do during the day while they wait for the big game to start. And have a great sweatshirt or t-shirt with Make-A-Wish and the event name on it. People become walking billboards for you.
My other advice would be to start small. We didn’t plan to create a major annual community event. We just wanted to have fun with our neighbors and sell some sweatshirts to support Make-A-Wish. The success came because it WAS fun and people wanted to be a part of it.
Choose something that you can do well and that people will want to come to, like a dance party or a softball game. Charge admission for participants and sell event t-shirts. If people have a good time, they’ll bring more friends next time. The sky’s the limit!
This year’s Long Beach Polar Bear Super Bowl Splash takes place on Sunday, February 3, 2019.
For more information or to register, please go to superbowlsplash.kintera.org.