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Jan 8, 2019 2:23 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Eighth Graders To Host Polar Plunge For Class Project

From left to right: Westhampton Beach Middle School students Reilly Mahon, Anthony Agudelo and Lauren Goss, and English teacher Kelly Russell. ANISAH ABDULLAH
Jan 8, 2019 3:39 PM

Three eighth grade classmates at Westhampton Beach Middle School share something in common: Their lives have all been affected by a loved one with a disability. So when it came time to devise a plan for a class project, they decided to organize a Polar Plunge fundraiser at Rogers Beach in Westhampton Beach later this month to support East End Disability Associates.

Participants will run into the frigid Atlantic Ocean waters after collecting monetary sponsorships from donors.

The students—Anthony Agudelo, Lauren Goss and Reilly Mahon, all 13 years old—were in the same Critical Literacy class earlier in the school year. The class focused on developing professional skills, like how to give an interview and how to write up things like proposals, mission statements and grants.

A large part of the class involved learning how to then apply those skills outside of the classroom. The students, split into small groups, were assigned with coming up with and executing a service-oriented project to benefit the community in some way. Their teacher, Kelly Russell, explained that the project mimics the students building their own nonprofit organization.

Some groups came up with ideas such as a coat drive, a letter-writing campaign to members of the military and a fundraiser for breast cancer. Each group developed a “social action plan” that explains their project idea and how they would carry it out.

After some discussion, Anthony, Lauren and Reilly realized that they all had one close family member with either a physical or mental disability, and decided to make their project about helping others with disabilities.

Anthony’s 17-year-old brother, William, is on the autism spectrum, and also suffers from glaucoma, seizures and partial blindness. Reilly’s father, Kris Mahon, was a New York City firefighter who lost his right arm during a work-related accident five years ago and now has a prosthetic limb. Lauren’s cousin Jayden also is on the autism spectrum.

“We’re pretty close,” Anthony said of his brother. “I mean, I feel like I should spend a little bit more time with him, to be honest, but I help him a lot, I take care of him. My parents trust me with him.”

Reilly described some of the struggles that her father faces having a prosthetic arm, like challenges in taking care of her 10-month-old brother. “It’s difficult, but we get through it,” she said.

When choosing an organization, they went with one that they were all familiar with. Anthony said EEDA has provided services for his brother for a long time, and Lauren’s mom, April Goss, had previously worked there. They agreed that walk or run types of fundraisers are put on too often, so they decided on the more thrilling Polar Plunge idea—joining a handful of other plunges held across the East End every winter, including one sponsored by the student government at the nearby high school.

“When they told me they wanted to do something with disabilities, my heart exploded. Because that’s my guy, that’s my little guy,” Ms. Russell said, referring to her son, Jack, who is on the autism spectrum.

“The students’ spirit of generosity is a wonderful example of how inclusion of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities has taught the importance of responsibility for societal essentials,” EEDA CEO Lisa Meyer Fertal said in a statement. “This gives great hope for a future that values everyone’s talents, skills and contributions. We are proud of the students and to be part of this wonderful opportunity.”

Ms. Russell gives her students a lot of autonomy with their projects, to the point that they had to make all of the phone calls and deliver in-person proposals to businesses.

For the project, she said that the three students went around to local businesses seeking support and were able to get Hamptons Coffee to donate coffee and hot chocolate for the event. The only way that Ms. Russell helped the group was by obtaining the necessary permits from the village and getting the event insured.

After months of organizing, Anthony, Lauren and Reilly are less than two weeks away from their Polar Plunge, a project they decided to continue after the class ended in November. It is scheduled for Saturday, January 19, from noon to 3 p.m. at Rogers Beach. Admission is $10 at the beach, and people can sign up or sponsor a participant through the EEDA’s website.

“They went right down to our music teacher, who’s the head of Rogers Beach,” Ms. Russell said, referring to Shaun Johnson, the school’s music coordinator and the beach manager for the village’s two beaches. “They were like, ‘Could we use Rogers Beach?’ They were out of the gate before we even knew what was happening. It started from there, and he said ‘yes’ and explained we’d have to get permits and insurance and all that stuff.”

Ms. Russell added that another group in the class piggybacked off the idea and will be hosting a bake sale at the event. All proceeds will also go toward EEDA.

Anthony, Lauren and Reilly said they have never participated in a Polar Plunge before, but are excited to do it because they know it is for a good cause.

“We’re really nervous,” Reilly said, and the others agreed, laughing.

This is the first time that EEDA is involved in a Polar Plunge as well. Not only is it the chosen charity organization, but several employees also agreed to take the plunge.

Camden Ackerman, the organization’s manager of development and public relations, who has been the point of contact for Ms. Russell and the students, was one of the first people to sign up for the event. His brother-in-law, Village Trustee Brian Tymann, signed up with him.

Mr. Tymann said that the two of them practiced for the event by taking a plunge on New Year’s Day.

Mr. Tymann’s company, Hampton Trading Company, is one of the event’s sponsors. He said that his staff will be giving out free shirts, sweatshirts and hats to participants.

“This is a great organization. It helps people with developmental disabilities, and I’m very proud that the village is able to offer the beach for that event,” Mr. Tymann said at the January 3 Village Board meeting, after the board authorized Ms. Russell’s class to use Rogers Beach.

The Moriches Bay Project, another sponsor, stated on its Facebook page that it would cover the registration cost for anyone who wants to participate and give them a Shucks hat and T-shirt.

As of January 8, EEDA received over 100 sponsorships for the fundraiser, as well as many responses and inquiries, Mr. Ackerman said in an email. He added that many people plan to register at the beach on the day of the event, with a high number of Westhampton Beach students and staff participating.

Ms. Russell said that they are expecting around 100 participants. “We have lifeguards, we contacted the Village Police, and so it’ll be a well-organized event,” she said.

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