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Special Olympics of Wisconsin has Columbus students plunging for a purpose

WiscNews - 2/22/2019

Feb. 21-- Feb. 21--After breaking a record last year, students at Columbus High School weren't satisfied.

Last February, CHS students, led by members of Project Unify, raised more than $17,000 for Special Olympics of Wisconsin. Students celebrated with a Friday pep rally before jumping into an ice-cold Madison lake the following day for the annual Polar Plunge. While $17,000 was the most raised by any team at the Polar Plunge, students and staff knew they could reach even greater numbers.

This year, CHS shattered their previous record, raising $26,503.89.

Those funds will help Special Olympics athletes purchase equipment for sports, cover travel expenses to tournaments and provide free health screenings. CHS was again the top fundraising team at the Feb. 16 Polar Plunge. As a reward, Special Olympics of Wisconsin presented CHS with a check for $6,250.

To honor the students' outstanding fundraising effort, CHS Principal Jake Ekern and Superintendent Annette Deuman, both dressed in costume, dove into the icy water.

Jahlieh Henderson, the high school's Unified Champion Schools liaison, also joined her students for a frosty dip. In all, 46 high school and middle school students, two teachers and two administrators took the plunge.

"Jake agreed to plunge if they met their goal of $20,000, and so did Superintendent Deuman," Henderson said.

To hit the $20,000 mark, students had to crank up their fundraising efforts. Henderson said money was raised through several activities, including going door to door, through local businesses, shoveling driveways, bake sales, miracle minutes at basketball games, which features students running up the stands collecting as much money they can in less than a minute, penny wars, pie throwing contest, free-throw shooting contests, asking friends, families, teachers and peers and selling hair "scrunchies" and bracelets.

The school's fundraising success, along with a feature segment on Project Unify, was aired on NBC 15 News on Feb. 19. CHS started its Project Unify chapter in 2012 and it's grown every year. Last year the group had more than 80 members. Columbus Middle School has also developed a chapter. Through Project Unify, students learn about leadership, empowerment, self-advocacy and other valuable skills.

Henderson said Project Unify teaches students to be good, all-around people, fostering a mindset of inclusiveness that lasts a lifetime. She said students from other districts have transferred to Columbus because of the program.

Project Unify promotes inclusiveness in schools and CHS has become one of the state's leaders in bringing students together, regardless of abilities. Henderson said it's amazing to see a school of about 400 students create such a large impact throughout the state. She said it's a testament to the students' hard work, dedication and the community's generosity.

CHS students said being part of Project Unify has changed their lives.

"I've learned a lot, especially leadership skills, and I just wanted to give back to this group," said senior Sarah Zittel before last year's Polar Plunge. Zittel also participated in this year's fundraiser, pep rally and plunge.

To learn more about Columbus School District's Project Unify chapter, contact Henderson at jhenderson@columbus.k12.wi.us.

Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter

@kdamask or call 608-963-7323.

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