SEASIDE HEIGHTS — The weather conditions were less than ideal for the 25th annual Polar Bear Plunge, but that didn't stop more than 7,000 people from running into the ocean to raise money for the Special Olympics New Jersey.

Jeremy Davis, director of marketing and communications for the organization, said the plunge has come a long way from the first year when 83 plungers raised $23,000. Davis said the growth has been "tremendous," and that this year's event will cover around a quarter of the organization's budget for the year.

"It helps run our programs, build our programs, reach out to athletes, provide resources for them," he said. "About 85 cents of every dollar raised goes completely towards our programs and actually benefits the athletes directly."

Adding cold temperatures and rain to the frigid water temperatures may not have been ideal for the plungers, but Davis said it showed the commitment of people who support the Special Olympics effort.

"It doesn't matter what the weather is: good, bad, ugly, they're going to come out because they believe in what they're supporting and they believe in our mission and our movement," he said. "It just goes to show how much we mean to people."

With Special Olympics chapters all over the country, Davis said he wasn't sure how the plunge compares to other one-day fundraisers but said "it's got to be up there pretty high." As for the future, he said $2 million is going to go a long way.

"Definitely you want to raise the bar," he said. "How big we can get it? The sky's the limit."

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics New Jersey. A slate of events is scheduled for the rest of the year, starting with a gala on April 5 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark featuring Frankie Valli. In July, the organization is hosting a sports day at its complex in Lawrenceville to celebrate and honor the athletes who have competed under the organization's banner for half a century.

Even if people don't want to jump into a frigid ocean, Davis said there are other ways to contribute to Special Olympics, including donating or volunteering. More information about ways you can help can be found on the organization's website.

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