Unified club CMS

From left, Darian Mehra, Riley Andersen, James Robbins, Kaiti Leonard, Kallan Pierskalla, Sarah Heiberg and Samuel Stoffer. Darian, James, Kaiti and Sarah helped organize this year’s Cool Schools Polar Plunge and got to know Riley, Kallan and Samuel through their work with Unified Club.

Participants in this Friday’s Cool Schools Polar Plunge may only now be gearing up for the shock of cold water, but Sarah Heiberg, James Robbins, Kaiti Leonard and Darian Mehra have been preparing since August.

The four Central Middle School (CMS) students are part of the school’s Unified Club and have been busy organizing the frigid fundraiser for seven months. Participants will jump into the freezing waters of Lake Riley on Friday, March 10, to raise money for Minnesota’s Special Olympics and Central Middle School’s special education program, one day ahead of Eden Prairie’s 12th annual Polar Plunge.

Sarah and James, both seventh graders, and Kaiti and Darian, both eighth graders, have worked with the rest of CMS’s Unified Club to host the southwest metro’s first Cool Schools plunge, which is separate from the following day’s Polar Plunge, although they’ll both be held at the same location.

While both events raise money for the state’s Special Olympics, the Cool Schools plunge qualifies for a federal grant that sends a portion of the donations back to the host school. As a Champion School that puts on educational programming about inclusion throughout the year, 50 percent of the donations from Friday’s plunge will return to CMS’s special education program.

In August, as the Unified Club looked ahead at months of preparation for an event with multiple schools and hundreds of students, they decided to split tasks amongst themselves. James researched contact information for schools in Edina, Chaska and Minnetonka to send invitations, while Kaiti and Sarah made videos for morning announcements and wrote their first news release to send to local news organizations.

“We didn’t know what that was, so we had to Google it,” Sarah admitted about the news release.

The student-facing advertising was simpler. The club has papered the school with posters, passed out $1 “polar paw” raffle tickets, and encouraged friend groups to sign up in solidarity with each other, Darian said.

“Everyone knows about it, now we just have to get people to sign up,” Sarah added.

In the face of this enthusiasm, the administration has taken a step back to allow the students to lead the way.

“Most of the work that we do is just trying to offer support,” said CMS’s Assistant Principal Rich Larson. “We couldn’t do this without the student leaders.”

Larson estimated that Unified Club is one of the school’s largest student organizations with around 55 members. Other groups range from 12 to 25 members, he said, and no other club arrives at school for 7 a.m. meetings like the Unified members do.

“They’re very passionate about the work that they do,” Larson said. “We are very proud of our students.”

This is the first year that CMS has had a Unified Club, and while Larson said he can’t provide any data on the club’s impact, the students said they’ve felt a shift in the ways their peers interact with their classmates with disabilities. It begins with members of the Unified Club, both with disabilities and without, getting to know each other at the club’s social and sports events, Sarah explained. As they build relationships, other students see their peers saying hello to students with disabilities in the hallways and feel encouraged to do the same.

“I think a lot of other people are starting to see that and it’s starting to catch on,” she said. The club “shows everyone that we’re all equal, we’re all cool.”

With most of their planning work done, the students are looking forward to the festivities on Friday. There will be karaoke, educational games, hot chocolate and a heated tent. Eden Prairie firefighters will be standing by to assist anyone who needs help, and EMTs will be on the scene to ensure the warming tent does its job of heating plungers back up from their freezing dive.

Local students and staff from Eden Lake Elementary, Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School and Eden Prairie High School, as well as from neighboring Minnetonka, Edina and Chaska schools, will be on the ice as well.

Kaiti, an experienced polar plunger, guessed that she’s participated in 21 icy events, while Darian has been in five. Although he’s looking forward to the leap, he admits that as he approaches the icy waters every time, he wonders, “Why am I doing this?”

For others who hesitate at the thought of leaping into a frozen Lake Riley, Darian suggested the “chicken plunge” that allows donors to raise money and toss a rubber chicken into the lake instead of jumping themselves.

Eden Prairie’s Cool Schools Polar Plunge is at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, March 8, at Lake Riley Park.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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