HAMPTON BEACH -- The weather gods looked warmly Saturday upon 428 grateful participants in the sixth annual High School Plunge to benefit Special Olympics New Hampshire.
Students and teachers representing 35 New Hampshire high schools raised about $142,000 in the largest high school plunge to date.
Today, even more participants are expected to take their dip in the nearly freezing ocean water in the weekend's main event, the 15th annual Penguin Plunge.
The plunges have grown to become the largest single fundraiser for the statewide organization, raising more than $5.6 million in 15 years. The funds help provide youth and young adults with intellectual disabilities with year-round athletic training and competition as well as other wellness programs and support.
Local teams raise money for their individual groups as well as the larger organization, and each year the number of teams across the state, and the number of members, continues to grow.
This year, Goffstown High School had 43 plungers participate in Saturday's high school event, up from 26 last year. This year's theme was "high school spirit," and the group was a sea of maroon and white plunging quickly in and out of the waves.
Senior Libby Gleason, 17, was honored as one of nine students who have participated all four years of their high school career. Her Goffstown High School team earned an award for "school spirit" during the parade before the plunge, and the team raised over $13,000 for SONH.
Gleason said she started volunteering with the organization as a freshman because a friend was involved.
"I just love the atmosphere, the kids. We're like a family now," Gleason said.
She said the plunge is fun and a good way to raise money for the organization.
SONH President Mary Conroy said she always loves the enthusiasm and energy the students exude during the high school plunge and afterward at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, where warm food is served and awards are announced.
She said the partnership between SONH and the NHIAA through New Hampshire Unified Sports is also helping to change school climates.
"I think the high school plunge is youth support of other youth," she said. "And it helps to change the climate in the schools in terms of acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities."
David England, a 19-year-old Hopkinton High School graduate, participated in his fourth high school plunge this year with his brother, Peter, 20, who is in his fifth year with the Hopkinton High School team. Each of the young men raised more than $300 for their team.
In his first year participating, Peter England was recognized as the Most Distinguished Penguin, an honor he said has kept him coming back.
David England said he simply likes the cold water.
Air temperatures are expected to approach a high of 46 degrees for today's plunge, which will begin at noon in front of the main state park building on Hampton Beach.
Carrie Hill, development director for SONH, said longtime plungers prefer the air temperature to be closer to 15 degrees because then the water temperature, which on Saturday was near 38 degrees, does not feel so shocking.
SONH was founded in 1970 with the first state Summer Games at Phillips Exeter Academy. It now provides year-round training and competition in 14 sports to more than 5,608 participants across the state.