It’s official: The fifth annual Leap in the Lake made its biggest splash ever.A record number of leapers, 418, turned out to brave the lake’s icy waters and help the Hopatcong Elks Club raise money to help area special needs children. The turnout was nearly double last year’s total of 253 leapers.
This year’s leap raised more than $70,000 that will go toward various programs for special needs students, including helping 18 of them attend Elks Camp Moore in the summer. The camp, located in the Ramapo Mountains in Haskell, offers a week’s vacation for children with special needs and further develops their recreational and social skills.
Rick Gathen, who conceived the leap event five years ago, spent Feb. 8 talking with spectators, making sure everything was ready and shepherding excited, boisterous leapers down to the lake, all while dressed as a “Thing,” from the Dr. Seuss classic, “The Cat in the Hat.” All the Elks members were visible in the large crowd, with their curly, bright blue wigs and red T-shirts that identified them not only as a “Thing,” but also as “Elksickles.”
“The motto of the committee this year is ‘organized chaos,’” Gathen joked.
The outrageous costumes were out in force—superheroes, cartoon characters, men in tutus—each one adding more hilarity to the already spirit-filled day. Creative team names adorned T-shirts and signs. Team Castaway toted a Wilson volleyball, while a team dressed as the cast of “The Incredibles” kept warm pre-leap in their padded costumes.
“At this time last year, I was living in Miami,” said leaper Keith Kaskie of Netcong who was dressed as Fred Flintstone. His team, from A Net’s Pub in Netcong, was warming up with a drink before the leap. Kaskie said it was his first leap and an item on his bucket list.
“It’s for a good cause,” he said. “And we got good people and good friends out here.”
Other first-time jumpers were a bit more nervous.
“I’m a little apprehensive,” admitted Sharon Gruber of Lake Hopatcong, who came out to represent both the Lake Hopatcong Rotary Club and the law firm of Gruber, Colabella & Liuzza. “But I feel like I can do anything for ten seconds.”
For safety reasons, leapers aren’t allowed to stay in the water longer than 15 seconds, and emergency personnel in thermal wetsuits wait around the perimeter of the leap area in case anyone needs assistance. This year, no one did, and the frigid frivolity was in high gear as team after team plunged into the water. There were shouts, screams and plenty of splashing as leapers hit the water, some in costumes, some in bathing suits, and, well, some in their underwear before they bounded back up to the warmth of their clothing.
“The way to cheat is to put Vaseline or baby oil all over yourself before you go in,” said Patricia Porter, a member of the Elks who was representing the club dressed as the club’s mascot—a penguin. Her son, Tom Brown, is a Past Exalted Ruler of the Elks and a five-time leaper. Her niece, Kaitlyn Weihenig has come from Great Meadows, N.J. every year for the leap.
“When you submerge, it does take your breath away,” Brown said. “And when you come up, it’s a little disorienting, but then you get your breath.”
Weihenig, who always makes the leap in a bikini, said it’s easier with fewer clothes on. Those who jump in wearing pants and shirts then have to contend with the cold air making the freezing, wet fabric stick to them.
Gathen said first-time leapers quickly learn that coming out of the water into the cold air is actually harder than the leap itself.
“Their faces when they hit the water are fun to watch,” he said. “They always laugh and catch their breath. But coming out is definitely the hardest part.”
It was difficult last year several veteran leapers remembered, when the leap took place the day after a major snowstorm.
“When we came out of the water last year, it was so windy and the wind was blowing the snow around,” said Karen Handy of Stanhope, who was back for her third leap. She first got involved because her daughter was participating. She decided to take the plunge herself partly because it also was on her bucket list, and because she has a son with special needs.
And it truly was all about the kids. During the post-leap party at the Elks Lodge, Gathen had arranged for teachers and administrators from 13 special needs schools or programs in the area to be in attendance, giving each school or program a check for $1,000. Several special needs students and their families also attended the event.
“That’s important to me,” Gathen explained. “A lot of fundraising organizations talk about how much money they raised, but I want people to be able to see the end use. I wanted people to see us as transparent. We also have 18 kids who are going to Camp Moore in the summer, and at $1,500 each, that’s all paid for by this. That’s why we do this. That’s why you jump in that lake. You walk out of there feeling like you truly did something meaningful for the community.”
The teachers and administrators who attended the party could not have agreed more.
“We’re so small, $1,000 is a lot for our budget,” said Susan Cummings, supervisor of special needs services for Mount Arlington Public Schools. “We always try to keep up with data and technology changes, and this money will help us do that.”
“I really want to thank the local Elks for thinking about us,” added Jeff Grillo, Mount Arlington principal. “This gives us the opportunity to help our students who need it most.”
Many of the administrators said they would use the money for technology, a vital part of helping today’s special needs students to not only
learn, but to integrate with other students.
“For us, $1,000 could mean two new iPads,” said Patricia Hovey, director of special services in Roxbury, adding that such electronic devices are often able to help special education students with communicating and other needs. Instead of some big, odd-looking machine that only makes other children stare, using something like an iPad helps the special needs student become better integrated with regular education students.
In Randolph, the money will help furnish the district’s “transition lab,” an apartment-style lab that allows special needs students to experience what it’s like living on their own, said Danielle Hamblin, director of special services. The lab is currently looking for appliances, and the donation money will help offset some of those expenses.
“We’re very appreciative of this donation,” said John Gannaio, director of special services in Dover. “It will really be of use to our students.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Marci Spadafora, principal of Park Lake School in Rockaway, and Sandra Neglia, special education teacher at the school.
“Everything we do is all about the kids,” Spadafora said. “This money will go right back to the students.”
Spadafora and Neglia, who only found out about the Leap in the Lake event this year, said they’d consider leaping themselves next year since, as they said, it’s for the kids.
At Nixon School in Roxbury, the money raised will go to the school’s Culture and Climate Committee, organized last year with a focus on creating a safe school environment that’s inclusive of all students, said Principal Danielle Lynch. Art teacher Izzy Speronza was at the party to represent the committee, which is comprised of students, staff and parent representatives.
At Hopatcong High School, the money will help fund “Kooler Beanz,” a café for staff members that’s run by special needs students, said special education teacher Karen Cubberly. The students whip up coffee and tea for teachers on the lookout for a little caffeine and get to know the teachers so well they often have their preferred drinks ready by the time they get to the cash register. The teachers get their morning joe, and students learn how to handle money. What they earn is used on school trips or Christmas shopping.
The sense of community was overflowing at the Elks after the leap, as leapers and spectators alike warmed their fingers around Italian sausages and subs, and laughed over the day’s events.
“We have some of the most generous people in the world here,” Gathen reflected. “These are not wealthy people, but they are very charitable, especially when they know where it’s going and that it’s local. It’s just a great community.”