What would possess hundreds of people to huddle together on a snow-streaked beach in mid-winter and suddenly dash and splash into the frigid water before them? Ask any of them and the answer will be the same.
“It’s all for the kids,” said 72-year-old Roy Morano, one of 307 participants
in the Saturday, Feb. 11, “Leap in the Lake,” hosted annually since 2010 by the Lake Hopatcong Elks Lodge No. 782. “They raise thousands of dollars for special needs kids every year. That’s what it’s all about.”
Actually, with leapers donating $50 for the pleasure of plunging into the frigid water at Lake Hopatcong State Park, along with upwards of 100 local sponsors and numerous donors, this year’s event raised close to $50,000. The event’s eight-year total is approximately $400,000.
“In our best year, we managed to bring over $70,000,” said Wayne McDonnell, the Lodge’s Special Children’s Chairperson and a seven-time leaper. “Every year the number of special children we serve locally grows because we’re constantly having new families discovering what the Elks has to offer their kids.”
On cue, Saturday afternoon, waves of leapers shrieked, laughed and splashed their way into the lake. While most wore traditional beach attire, many sported outlandish costumes, including a veritable zoo full of animals, leprechauns, superheroes and a woman in a full bridal ensemble.
The event has come a long way since its inception, when it was dreamed up as a fundraiser to replace an annual venison dinner that used to bring in a few thousand dollars, according to Rick Gathen, Elks National Membership and Public Relations Director.
“The Leap in the Lake has changed everything,” said Gathen, one of the event’s founders. “We’ve never been able to do for the special needs community what we can now.” The premier event, with only 37 leapers and 13 sponsors, made a bigger financial splash than expected. “Our target was to raise $8,000,” Gathen added. “People thought we were crazy, but we made $20,000.”
The event has become so popular, in recent years, the parking lot approaches capacity and sometimes prompts the Park Police to restrict entry. This year, a handful of motorists were forced to find parking in a nearby church lot. Some of the later-arriving leapers, who had to walk a ways to the park, were turned back by the time they reached the beach.
“It looked like the parking lot was only half full, but [Park Police] wouldn’t let us in,” said would-be leaper Ted Rabidis, after being informed he wouldn’t be able to enter the water because the Ice Rescue Team from Roxbury Fire Company 2 had already left its post in the lake.
All Leap in the Lake funds support programs and activities for young people with special needs. It foots the bill for many to attend Elks Camp Moore, several holiday parties and a prom, among other events designed especially for them. Additionally, a full $15,000 goes to special needs programs in area public schools.
Kim Catalfamo’s son, Joey, who has cerebral palsy, witnessed Saturday’s Leap in the Lake from his wheelchair. He regularly benefits from attending activities hosted by the local lodge. If the thought of a midwinter leap into Lake Hopatcong doesn’t give you goose bumps, perhaps Kim Catalfamo’s gratitude will.
“As a special needs parent, we can’t afford all the medical expenses and everything, so it’s incredible when people help financially like this,” she said, bracing herself against the chill at Saturday’s event. “When I see him at the parties, though, dancing and socializing on his own, that goes way beyond what any amount of money can give me.”