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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Special Olympian says price to Plunge too high

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 23. 2014 12:44AM

We in New Hampshire love our rules.

We keep them simple. We expect everyone to follow them. And we get aggravated when people break the rules and get away with it, for example an allegedly tipsy politician who kills ducks or an off-duty cop who allegedly splits after running into a couple of teenage pedestrians.

But "the rules are the rules" can be a pretty harsh way of living life. Just ask Jason Kimball.

Kimball, 41, is a developmentally disabled adult with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He loves Special Olympics and has competed in Special Olympic games for decades. He's a global messenger for the organization, meaning he gives speeches about Special Olympics.

And from 2009 to 2012, he raised money and took the Penguin Plunge, the upcoming, annual icy event that is the biggest fundraiser for Special Olympics New Hampshire.

But last year, the Manchester resident didn't take the Plunge. He was refused after raising about half of the minimum $350 entry fee. This year he didn't even try.

"People can't afford (to donate) money now," said a frustrated Kimball. "I'm speaking for every Special athlete who doesn't raise $350. Just let them go in the water. What's wrong with it? I really don't get it."

The Penguin Plunge takes place on Feb. 2 at Hampton Beach. Last year, 608 people participated. Each raised at least $350. Most exceeded the amount, said Mary Conroy, president and chief executive of Special Olympics New Hampshire.

She said the organization insists that every participant — I'll call them penguins — raise the minimum. For one, the organization has its expenses — the user fee for Hampton Beach State Park, rental of the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom; a post-plunge meal.

But as important, she said, is the fact that everyone should be treated equally. Last year, 45 Special Olympians raised the minimum and took the plunge.

"So I shouldn't have expectations for a person with developmental disabilities?" Conroy said. "We try 365 days a year to look at our athletes as athletes and contributing members of our society."

Kimball does his share of contributing. He's given two speeches so far on behalf of Special Olympics and said he's scheduled to do another next month. He volunteers four days a week at New Horizons in Manchester.

Kimball resides in public housing and lives on a disability check. He said his mental health diagnosis prevents him from holding a job.

His first year of the Penguin Plunge, he raised $700, he said. His annual collections fell slightly the following years. In 2012, he raised a little short of $500, his worst until last year, when he collected only $150.

"The economy is bad," he said. "I know people tried so much to help me get that $350. Some people are on very fixed incomes. They don't have a job. They're on unemployment."

He said he was turned away when he tried to register at the office.

Conroy knows Kimball and said she didn't realize he was turned away last year. She said she wished she knew — local program coordinators can help athletes raise money, and other penguins can donate excess contributions to others.

But everyone has to try.

"If he has done nothing, I will do nothing," she said. "It's not about the Penguin Plunge. Our conversation is about people with developmental disabilities."

Consistently, the athletes have told organizers that they want referees to follow the rules when officiating, she said.

They both make good points. And it comes down to our New Hampshire embrace of law and rules.

Shall we be as unyielding as a polar vortex and stick by the rules? It's fair, it's simple, it works. Or do we bend a fraction? A little warmth is good, but too much heat can melt everything away.

Consider sliding scales, I asked Conroy. Welfare offices and health clinics offer benefits based on the ability to pay. Sliding scales are used for something that's a right, such as health care, Conroy said, not a privilege.

What about just making an exception? You don't need to change the rules, just give a wink and a nod to someone you know, I asked. (That certainly happens enough in this town, like at the City Hall employment office.)

And what, Conroy replied, does she say to the 45 Special Olympians who raised their $350?

"The moment we compromise the integrity of the event," she said, "then it gets cloudy."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on He can be reached at

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