Heather and Kelly Pariso co-founded the Portage Lakes Polar Bear Club in 2004 to help raise money for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, the Akron Rotary Camp and the Ronald McDonald House of Akron. Hosted in mid-February, the annual Polar Bear Jump involves plunging off the Portage Lakes State Park Beach dock into frigid — sometimes frozen — waters. After raising $13,000 in its first year, the event surpassed its $150,000 goal in 2018.
I myself am never excited to do it. I don’t like the cold weather. I have to say, getting into a cold pool is much worse, because you’re gradually getting into the pool. Jumping in is all at once. You hit the bottom, and it’s a fight-or-flight response — that oh my gosh I have to get out of this water.
Once you put your warm clothes on, you’re not even cold anymore, and you have this great feeling because your adrenaline is pumping. The anticipation is much worse than the actual jump.
Anybody can jump. I have young kids — a 9- and 11-year-old — and they jump. They go to their neighbors, friends, teachers and their family. They each raised over $500 last year, all on their own. We taught them to give back.
In 2014, we had a Level 3 snow emergency. Not only did we have to cut through ice because it was so cold, but people couldn’t really be out on the roads because there was so much snow. People ended up walking to the lake and still coming to jump.
We’ve raised over a million dollars. That’s what motivates me. We’re able to better the community. We’re able to help families be with their children when they’re sick. That’s why I do it.” — as told to Abigail Miller