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Icy plunge pays off big for Olcott's Lions Club

OLCOTT -- It's not just another day at the beach for the hundreds of swimmers and waders who will brave icy Lake Ontario Sunday for the 40th Polar Bear Day Swim for Sight at Olcott Beach.

It's also a way to raise money for a wide variety of causes, through the event's sponsor, the Olcott Lions Club.

"We've probably raised about $150,000 in the past 10 years," said organizer William J. Clark, who has headed the event for the Olcott Lions for a decade. "Before that, we made maybe $100,000 because we just charged admission -- the swimmers didn't get sponsors. And, of course, it all started 40 years ago as just sort of a fun thing."

The event started with a barroom bet four decades ago at Mike Rann's Black Stallion tavern. The Lions took it over years later and turned it into the big fundraiser that it is today.

Last year's event drew a record 702 people, Clark said. There is a $10 participation fee, but swimmers are encouraged to raise donations through sponsors, as well.

Those donations fund a variety of causes, particularly "in support of people with sight problems," which is the mission of the Lions Club, Clark said. But, a number of local groups also benefit, such as Canine Helpers for the Handicapped Inc., Niagara Hospice, Equistar Therapeutic Riding Center and Eastern Niagara Hospital in Newfane.

"We're very grateful for the Lions' support through the years," said Carolyn Moore, the hospital's public relations director. "They've been a big help to us in terms of donating money towards our renovation projects and in order to help us purchase diagnostic equipment."

Likewise, Patricia Degan, director of marketing and public relations for Niagara Hospice added, "It's important for people to know that no one is ever denied care at Niagara Hospice. While Medicare and other insurances cover the costs of care for some individuals, there are also the underinsured and the uninsured, and that's why we really rely on the Polar Bear Swim and others to help raise funds to help offset these costs. We're very appreciative of it.

"In addition, the average cost of care doesn't always cover every service we provide, because we provide physical, emotional, spiritual and even bereavement care for the families up to 13 months following a death," Degan said. "So these types of fundraisers, as well as grants and other donor opportunities, really help to offset the costs of care."

Polar Bear Swim activities begin with a tailgate party at 10 a.m., with swim registration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Polar Bear Queen contest is held at 1:45 p.m., with the swimmers under age 18 entering the water at 1:50 p.m. The Swim for Sight begins at 2 p.m.

Clark said all registered swimmers receive a T-shirt, but those contributing $50 or more in donations will receive a special 40th anniversary T-shirt this year. Participants raising $250 or more receive a Polar Bear jacket, and those raising $500 or more qualify for gift certificates.

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