Watson: Why I Dive for Cover

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“Ahhhhh!” “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” “Get out of my way!”

These are some of the things brave divers shouted as they shivered and exited the freezing waters of the Maui Jim Sunglasses pond during the annual Dive For Cover fundraiser on Friday, Feb. 28.  Money raised goes to the South Side Mission’s homeless shelter for women and children.  

For the 14thstraight year, costumed crazies elected to plunge into the pond, willingly mind you, while a crowd of a hundred or so watched from the shoreline. I completed my sixth Peoria polar plop. Growing up in Michigan with a backyard pool that was shaded and generally too chilly to stay in long, I consider myself one who can handle cold water better than most. But nothing prepares you for the shock that 32 degree water produces.

One year, I did a mini dive, face forward into the pond, which is only about 40 inches deep. The jolt of the cold water made me gasp, which isn’t a good thing to do while under water. I gulped down a huge drink of pond water and staggered to my feet while fighting off hyperventilation. I don’t go face first anymore.

The freezing pond water does take your breath away momentarily. Your body can move, but it does so sluggishly, in slow motion.  When you get out, the cold experience is not over. If it’s windy, you feel little needles on your wet skin as you race to grab your towel and run indoors to the Maui Jim world headquarters.

Why would anyone in their right mind do it?  For me, it’s a belief in the work that South Side Mission Executive Director Phil Newton and his staff of 80 do with the homeless shelter and their other numerous programs that help some of our poorest neighbors better themselves. It’s a feeling of being blessed to be able to help out others in some small way. It’s a feeling of paying it forward. You never know if one day you might be the one needing a helping hand.

This year’s Dive For Cover raised over $60,000, the second largest annual fundraising event for the South Side Mission. The weather was bright and sunny, matching the spirit of the crowd and participants, with temperatures in the mid-20s. Due to the brutally cold winter, the Maui Jim pond water had more or less frozen solid, a first in the event’s history.  Maui Jim employees used chainsaws to cut out huge ice blocks and create a square for us to plunge into.

Keeping it in the family, Cassie Newell, the teenage daughter of Associate Director of Marketing and Development Meg Newell, sang a beautiful rendition of our National Anthem during the pre-Dive ceremony. Afterward, we were treated to a meal prepared by students from the Mission’s Culinary Chef School, which included a killer chili, soup and cookies meal.

The homeless shelter can house up to 45 women and children. They receive three meals prepared for them daily. It’s a safe, warm environment for the women that come to it for various reasons. Some are there as parolees. Some are fleeing an abusive relationship. Some were kicked out of their home by parents. Some have issues with drugs or alcohol.

On a recent tour of “The Lighthouse on Laramie,” Phil Newton escorted me around the facility, which is larger than it appears from the street. He made it clear that the women in the shelter are well cared for but are also expected to work on themselves. The shelter is not the final destination, but a safe stop on the way to a better, more self-sufficient life. Most of the women will stay there less than a year. The Mission helps with life skills coaching, job searching and transportation.

While the Dive For Cover is a fundraiser that solely benefits the homeless shelter, I was surprised at how many other programs The Mission provides to low income people. And there’s plenty of need for help, as Peoria’s 61605 zip code area around the South end is one of the 100 poorest zip codes in the country.

Nontraditional students from around the area can gain real world knowledge and expertise through The Mission’s vocational track. They offer the above-mentioned Culinary Chef School, a 12-week, 5-days-a-week course that prepares the student to become a chef in the food industry. The students prepare a daily lunch that’s served there for no charge. Newton says they’re "the only gourmet soup kitchen around.”

The chef school students are the ones that prepare the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals that many of us have helped deliver on those holidays, when the Meals on Wheels program shuts down. Volunteers deliver meals those days across a wide area, from Farmington to Lacon to Eureka to Manito, in addition to Peoria.

The South Side Mission has expanded its vocational schooling over the years. Now, they offer training classes for future hotel employees with their Hotel School, plus logistics training through Caterpillar and highway construction instruction through Illinois Central College. They do forklift training and are getting into the certified nursing and cosmetology worlds. The courses are designed to help motivated students land living wage jobs in recession-proof industries.

On my tour, Newton took me to see the Youth Building next door, where they provide structure and tutoring for latch key kids. Right now about 70 kids are in the program overseen by Sheree Lyles with many more interested. “There’s a waiting list,” Newton said, “Kids want to be here.”  There's a computer lab and library to assist in the learning process, with students arriving around 2:30 p.m. daily. And it’s not all school work. One room features pool and foosball tables. Plus, there’s a Saturday morning basketball program in the gym with about 80 kids involved.

After that stop, Newton and I hopped in his car and drove a couple blocks to the Benevolence Center on Marquette Street, which serves a larger tri-county area of struggling families. Here, a family can collect non-perishable food items and frozen meat each month. Families are also allowed to stop in quarterly for free clothes which, like the food, are donated. 

The Benevolence Center has also become the site to collect recyclables of every kind. Last year, director Steve Dunn said it collected and cashed in $84,000 in paper, cardboard, glass, clothes and metal. They even have a room with donated medical supplies and another with items for senior citizens. Outside and in their greenhouse, they're getting ready for spring planting in their expanding gardens so fresh vegetables can be included in the food bags. Counting a handful of satellite offices, they’ll help feed and clothe close to 1,000 low-income families each month.

During Newton’s car tour of the neighborhood, he pointed to roofs that had been installed atop area homes free of charge through the Hope Builders Program, which among other things does big ticket home repairs for low income veterans and senior citizens. In this case, the roofing was done by L.S. Home Repair of East Peoria with all supplies donated.

Hoerr Nurseries donated dozens of Flowering Pear trees that have been planted on Malone Street to help residents feel more pride in their neighborhood. Come summer, inner city and rural poor children can get a free one week summer camp experience at Camp Kearney in nearby Glasford.

That’s a lot of good being done by one group, a lot of volunteering. If you’d like to get involved, drop by their website,southsidemission.org, for more information. You can also "like" theSouth Side Mission on Facebook.  When you learn more about the positive contributions going on there, you’ll understand why people are willing to assist them in various ways, like jumping into a freezing pond each winter.

 

About the Author
Doc Watson likes to say he's not a real doctor, "but I play one on the radio." A native of Allen Park, Mich., he became a transplanted Peorian in 1996 when he came here to start the Morning Mix TV/radio simulcast show. Now he's a jock with 95.5 GLO and is " happy to be playing the music of my misguided youth." Though known for his voice, he occasionally dabbles with the written word and does that pretty well, too.