Headquartered in Great Falls and supported by almost 4,000 volunteers, Special Olympics Montana organizes and hosts local, area and state-level competitions for more than 3,000 athletes from 65 Montana communities. Its vision is an inclusive world for all in which people with intellectual disabilities live active, healthy and fulfilling lives through the power of sport.
Shifting the focus from disability to ability
Special Olympics got its start in the 1950s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver decided to take action against the unjust treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. What began as a summer day camp in her own backyard morphed into the first international Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968.
A couple years after that inaugural event in Chicago, Special Olympics Montana was born. The nonprofit held its first-ever State Summer Games in Billings for about 400 athletes, and since then it has grown to more than 25 competitions annually involving 13 sports – everything from basketball and soccer to bowling and skiing.
Through these events, Special Olympics Montana strives to foster a more accepting and inclusive world, helping people with ID dream big while discovering new strengths, abilities and skills.
“Sports can be a powerful force,” says CEO Rhonda McCarty. “They shift the focus from disability to ability, and from isolation to involvement.”
“Sports can be a powerful force. They shift the focus from disability to ability, and from isolation to involvement.”
–Rhonda McCarty, CEO of Special Olympics Montana
Putting the fun in fundraising
Through a wide range of training opportunities, competitions, health screenings and other events, Special Olympics reaches deep into communities to inspire and transform attitudes about the talent and potential of people with intellectual disabilities.
Fundraising not only meets the costs of Special Olympics events, but it becomes one with the fabric of the nonprofit’s mission, bringing people together around a common purpose as much as the athletic competitions do.
For Special Olympics Montana, fundraising takes many forms – from Tip-A-Cop® dinners, where law enforcement officers play celebrity servers and donate their tips to the nonprofit, to state-wide Chevy Silverado raffles.
One event that has proliferated across the Big Sky state since its inception in 1999 is the Polar Plunge®, where participants jump, run or crawl in the depths of winter into various frozen bodies of water– because nothing brings people together like hypothermia.
Since the first plunge more than two decades ago, 11,000 Montanans have taken the icy dip.
The Emperor of the Penguin Plunge has no clothes
The Penguin Plunge in Whitefish, Montana was the plunge that got it all started. That’s where Dave Harriman, owner of Lone Tree Insurance and probably the event’s whackiest fundraiser, comes in.
Every year, about 150 Whitefish residents band together to raise money before they cut a hole in Whitefish Lake’s seasonal ice cap and jump in. The event raises between $50,000 and $70,000 for Special Olympics Montana – and of all the contributors, Harriman and his agency consistently bring in the most dollars.
Harriman logs roughly two months a year calling donors, posting online and making hilarious videos promoting the Penguin Plunge. For one of those videos, he opted to stand in his underwear while holding a guitar on the snow at Whitefish Lake.
Of course, someone saw him and made their own video from the comfort of their sanity – I mean, “home” – and posted it online. The video went viral, and the rest is history.
“The video spread, and now I’m the naked Penguin Plunge guy,” says Harriman.
Sports are a powerful force indeed.
“The video spread, and now I’m the naked Penguin Plunge guy.”
–Dave Harriman, Lone Tree Insurance owner