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Long Beach Polar Bear plunge draws thousands for Make-A-Wish Foundation

People run from the waters off Long Beach

People run from the waters off Long Beach during the 17th annual Super Bowl Splash held in honor of Paulie Bradley, who passed away at the age of 4 before being able to receive his wish to be a lifeguard, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Thousands of people stripped down to swimsuits and ran into the chilly ocean at Long Beach Sunday afternoon, emerging with gasps and laughs before heading back for dry towels, robes and friends they left waiting on the shore.

“It’s really cold when you just get in,” said Karen Funk, 62 of Long Beach. “But when you get out, your whole body is like a little furnace — it’s so invigorating!”

It was Funk’s 11th year participating in the Long Beach Polar Bear Club’s annual Super Bowl Splash, which has raised $4.8 million for the Make-A-Wish foundation since it was first held in 2000.

The event was started by family and friends of 4-year-old Paulie Bradley. The Long Beach boy had wanted to be a lifeguard, but died from illness in 1997 before his wish was granted.

The event has grown over the years, with city officials estimating 20,000 attending this year. This year’s warmer temperatures, which hovered in the mid-40s Sunday, contributed to the high turnout, officials said.

“The city has really adopted this,” said Anthony Eramo, vice president of the Long Beach City Council. “It’s a Long Beach holiday.”

The city financially supports the event by paying for the employees, including police, public works and recreation, who help make the event possible. Eramo said the city has embraced the plunge, in part, because it benefits the national nonprofit that grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.

“Make-A-Wish Foundation is one of those rare nonprofits where almost every dollar goes to the cause,” Eramo said. “Not only is it good for their [the kids’] spirit, but it can change the trajectory of their illness.”

People who make the plunge can create teams and raise money leading up to the event. Funk herself raised $900 this year, one of her biggest years since she started doing the plunge — usually she brings in between $400 and $500, she said.

“It’s for kids who want to make a wish when they’re seriously ill,” Funk said. “There’s nothing more heartwarming than that.”

It was the first year diving in for Dennis Bujacich, 64, of Massapequa Park, who said a polar bear plunge had been on his bucket list, particularly since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s important to me to keep active,” he said.

He came to the event with two of his friends right after the trio attended a hot yoga class to maximize the shock of the cold water. They said they’ll be back next year — this time with a team of people to help them raise money for the cause.

“I’ll do it every year now,” Bujacich declared with a grin.

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