Squeals and shouts of joy arose from the Sea Bright Municipal Beach the afternoon of Jan. 26 as people of all ages raced into, then quickly out of, the Atlantic Ocean to mark the 14th annual Polar Plunge for Catholic Education.

The community of St. Mary School, Middletown,pose for a photo at the Polar Plunge for Catholic Education. Hal Brown photo

The 1,000 participants who braved the 45-degree sand and surf were warmhearted knowing the pledges they had garnered for the plunge would go toward their schools. Sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the event drew hundreds of warmly dressed individuals to the seaside town to test their mettle against the roiling seas. As of Jan. 28, more than $200,000 had been raised, all of which goes to the schools since the AOH pays for all event costs.

“It’s a great day for Catholic school unity,” said Jim Shaw, AOH Polar Plunge for Catholic Education chairman.

Photo Gallery: 2020 Polar Bear Plunge for Catholic Education

School flags waved to beckon their scholastic supporters, teammates reviewed strategies for thwarting the cold, and costumed mascots posed for photos. Regardless of their attire, all participants agreed: Catholic schools are worth the sacrifice.

The community of St. John Vianney, Holmdel, gathers for a photo at the Polar Plunge for Catholic Education Jan. 26 in Sea Bright. Jennifer Mauro photo

“It’s a fantastic way to kick off Catholic Schools Week,” said Martin Klein, PTA president in St. Mary Academy, Manahawkin. His fourth plunge was worth it, he said, “for it’s a great opportunity to raise funds, engage with our families and students and have a great day.”

Tracy Moser, kindergarten teacher in the academy, added with a laugh, “The plunge excites the children. They want to see pictures of their teachers plunging into the frigid ocean.” Noting the event’s true value, she continued, “Catholic education lays the foundation of instilling morals that some things are lost in today’s world.”

The four members of the Nukk family were attired in the blue-and-white school colors of Holy Cross Academy, Rumson. First-grader Maximus and three-year-old Harrison wiggled excitedly as they prepared to enter the winter surf; their mother, Maggie explained, “It’s our first time plunging. We have so much school spirit; we are proud of what we are doing.” She and her husband, Michael, were both products of Catholic schools, she shared and wanted their children to reap its benefits as well.

The Rumson elementary school’s PTA president, Kat Smith, explained the school’s strategy to maximize donations earmarked to upgrade their technology. On the day of the event, the school had raised more than $20,000.

“This [Polar Plunge] gets the whole community involved, even if they are not part of the school,” Smith said. “We piggybacked this event onto the recent [diocesan] Giving Tuesday platform so that everyone would know what we are doing. We increased what we raised earlier by over 100 percent in the three weeks we started.”

Teacher Deb Flego gives a thumbs-up along with those from Red Bank Catholic High School at the Polar Plunge for Catholic Education. Jennifer Mauro photo

Travis Sutphin, president of the St. James Elementary School Royals Club, a club for dads, expressed gratitude to the AOH for covering the costs of the event. He and his son Connor, a third-grade student at the Red Bank school, described their efforts to fundraise by asking local businesses to help and printing school T-shirts. Sutphin noted another reason for the success of the Polar Plunge: the presence of multiple Catholic schools from the Diocese.

“This gets all the Catholic schools together,” he said. “That’s the mission of Catholic Schools Week: how to make Catholic schools better for everyone.”

Managing Editor Jennifer Mauro and freelance photographer Hal Brown contributed to this report.