Cold for a cause

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

MISSION — The first time St. Pius X parishioner Chris Ronan wore his Flash costume, he scared small children.

“I was going to go trick-or-treating with my nieces,” he said. “I got all dressed and I came downstairs. And my niece Avery, who was two at the time, saw me and just went ballistic.”

Avery cried so hard that Ronan had to take the costume off. It sat in the back of his closet gathering dust, destined never to do a good deed — until recently, when Ronan made a pledge to friends and co-workers.

If they would donate $1,000 to Special Olympics, Ronan promised he would do the Polar Plunge on Jan. 30 into Shawnee Mission Park Lake in Lenexa dressed as The Flash.

Flash back

The Flash persona is an appropriate one for Ronan. He ran cross-country for St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and at the University of Kansas. He still racks up at least 50 miles a week running and has competed in several marathons.

“I got the Flash costume because he’s the closest superhero to a runner,” he said.

It was running, in fact, that first introduced Ronan to the Special Olympics.

“At the KU Relays, we would have a Special Olympic section like the 100-meter dash,” he said. “I was always just really impressed with the people I’d see compete in those events, and with the organization as well.”

Now in its 13th year, the Polar Plunge is Special Olympics’ biggest fundraiser and came about because the organization was looking for an innovative way to raise money.

“A lot of nonprofits have to do the golf tournaments, the big balls and galas,” said Donna Zimmerman, senior vice president of marketing and development for Special Olympics. “We were trying to find something unique for our organization.”

Special Olympics holds ten Polar Plunge events throughout Kansas each year. The plunge at Shawnee Mission Park, held in January, is its flagship event and boasts the biggest crowds.

Ronan had done the Polar Plunge in 2003. As he approached the prospect this year, especially in view of the recent economic downturn and the crisis in Haiti, he figured people were probably suffering from donor fatigue.

So to make his donation request more appealing, Ronan teamed up with his wife Rachel, who owns the graphic design freelance company Kiwi Creations. They put together a video appeal and posted it online through the Web site, firstgiving.com.

There the donations came rolling in, topping $1,000 with surprising speed.

“People seemed to be getting an unnatural amount of pleasure out of the idea of seeing me uncomfortable,” Ronan said. “We started to joke about it.

“My wife would say, ‘I don’t know if people really like you or really dislike you.’”

Flash forward

Ronan chose to prepare for the event by not preparing.

“It was going to happen one way or the other,” he said. “There’s not much I could do. I stayed as dry and as warm as I could until the moment came. And then I just did it.”

And Rachel Ronan had no interest in sharing her husband’s misery.

“No way,” she said. “I was there for support and to stand on the beach and cheer him on.”

Surprisingly enough, in the midst of the crowd lined up waiting to plunge into Shawnee Mission Lake, Ronan did not look out of place in his Flash costume. There were men dressed in business suits, formal gowns, and diapers. There were women wearing everything from bikinis to cocktail dresses.

“I certainly wasn’t alone in making a fool out of myself,” Ronan said.

To make matters worse, this year the lake water wasn’t just cold, it was frozen. A hole had to be chopped out of the ice around the beach so participants would have a place to plunge.

“It was a different experience this time,” said Ronan. “It was colder. When I hit the water, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This was worse than the last time I did it.’”

All the way

Ronan’s grandmother, Prince of Peace, Olathe, parishioner Bernie Gasparovich, ventured out in the snow to watch him plunge. She said she was proud and not at all surprised at her grandson’s selfless act.

“Chris has always been concerned with the charities,” she said. “He’s a very good Catholic. And he lives his faith every day of the week, not just on Sunday.”

Gasparovich also made note of the fact that her grandson’s plunge was superior to everyone else’s.

“Some of them just went in waist deep,” she said. “He went all the way out and then went clear under.”

“I decided if I was going to do this, I was definitely diving in headfirst and full immersion,” said Ronan.

“It did not feel good. It was definitely cold,” he said. “But people gave their money, and I was going to make sure they got full value for what they paid.”

Nor was his wife surprised that he took the plunge headfirst.

“He is very dedicated to whatever he sets his mind to — whether it’s running or jumping into the Polar Plunge,” she said. “He always gives more than 100 percent.

“If it’s something he believes in and wants to be a part of, there’s no doing it halfway. He goes all the way with it.”

At an after-party for participants, Ronan won an award for best individual costume. He was surprised, but his grandmother wasn’t.

“I told him, ‘Chris, of course you should have won because you looked so cute in your little outfit, and you were so dashing,’” she said.

Ronan raised more than $2,000 for the Polar Plunge, but his duty as a superhero didn’t end there.

One more good deed

While making a donation, one of his co-workers at Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo., where he is the communications manager, asked Ronan what it would take to get him to run through the fountains in Crown Center Square dressed as The Flash.

“I looked and I saw how much money the people in my building and the people who work for Hallmark had raised,” he recalled. “I think the number at that time was $340. So I said, ‘OK, in the next week, if we double that amount, I’ll run through the fountains.’”

Moreover, Ronan promised he would run through all five rows of fountains, and he’d do it on a day the temperature was below freezing.

The word quickly spread and, within two days, the amount had doubled. By the time Ronan did the Polar Plunge, his co-workers had raised $760.

And so, a few days after jumping headfirst into a frozen lake, Ronan became The Flash once again and ran through the fountains in Crown Center Square.

A small group of supporters cheered him on outside. A huge crowd watched from the office windows, and a video was being circulated by that afternoon.

Ronan said it was well worth the effort and humiliation.

“You’re uncomfortable for a few minutes and everybody has a big laugh at your expense,” he said. “But you’re raising so much money, so who cares?”

He said his Catholic faith was the impetus behind his actions.

“As Catholics, we learn the value of helping others,” he said. “Having gone to Aquinas with the service hour projects you do over the years, you just learn the value of helping out — not just the value it provides to someone else, but the value you get yourself.”

“I’ve helped a Special Olympian be able to do some sort of competition, and that’s a really neat thing — to know I’ve played a small part in making that possible for somebody else.”

Zimmerman couldn’t agree more.

“We have 5,489 athletes in the state of Kansas. These Polar Plunge participants have impacted a lot of lives, just by being silly for a few minutes,” she said.

“And” she added, “we just appreciate them more than we can say.”

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