At 10 o’clock Saturday morning, dozens of brave souls will take to the Deschutes River at Riverbend Park in Bend, no matter what the weather. They’re doing so for what I think is a wonderful cause, to raise money for Special Olympics. I’ll admit I have a bias about Special Olympics. My youngest daughter is a participant, and I volunteer for the organization.

Saturday’s will be the 11th annual plunge, and with temperatures expected to hover in the mid 30s, the “polar” part of that name is surely apt. I hope the crowd is so large and enthusiastic that frigid swimmers will be warmed just by all the hubbub surrounding them.

This year especially, I see the plunge as more than a fundraiser for Special Olympics. It’s also a sign of hope for the future. Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR), which oversees smaller groups around the state including Deschutes and Crook counties’ High Desert Special Olympics, has had a tough few months. Now, with the new year not yet two months old, things have begun to right themselves.

The picture was indeed bleak back in June 2018, says Britt Oase, CEO of SOOR. SOOR was about $2.5 million in debt and having trouble keeping the doors open. It tightened its belt by canceling state games — much to athletes’ dismay — and putting local groups on a tight budget. It laid off staff. Things that couldn’t be had for free simply wouldn’t be had at all.

The picture is brighter. More than half the debt is gone, and there’s a solid plan for the future in the works. Still, athletes and some others continue to wonder just how SOOR could dig itself into such a hole.

The questions are understandable. SOOR has worked hard to see that every athlete who wants to participate has the opportunity to do so, and that’s a good thing. And, as is true with all Special Olympics programs, no athlete ever pays to participate. That, in turn, is expensive. In a state that encompasses more than 98,000 square miles, travel alone is expensive, for buses must be rented, meals bought and overnight lodging provided. Then there are such things as bowling alley rental fees, ski area fees, swimming fees … and so on.

Too, SOOR has used funds raised around Oregon to help keep less well financed programs afloat. Unfortunately, in the last four years, fundraising had failed to keep up with need.

That has changed, Oase says. Local programs now will keep the money they raise to finance local programs rather than combine it with funds from other Special Olympics programs. The shift makes local fundraising more critical, and SOOR will work to help programs find ways to raise the money they need.

Another thing that’s likely to change, not this year, perhaps, but in 2020, is this: The state games (which were on hold last summer and will be again this year) may no longer be open to every athlete who medals in regional competitions. Rather, participation will be limited somewhat. Limits already were on the horizon in Spring 2018 in bocce (Italian lawn bowling), the program’s fastest growing sport.

I suspect that SOOR found itself in financial trouble for the noblest of reasons: Its board wanted to be sure that every qualified athlete in the state had the same opportunities as every other athlete. When fundraising failed to meet the need board members and others no doubt persuaded themselves that the problem was temporary, that if they all just worked harder, the money would roll in. It didn’t.

If that’s what happened, SOOR is certainly not alone. People who work and volunteer for private schools, museums and other nonprofits do so because they believe in what those nonprofits do. They’re there to help make those programs work, though sometimes commitment and hard work are not enough to get the job done.

All of which leads me back to Saturday’s polar plunge. It’s been a solid fundraiser over the years, and I expect it will be this year, as well. I certainly hope so — Special Olympics in Bend, Redmond, indeed, in all of Oregon, is dear to my heart, and its value to the children, men and women who participate is hard to overstate.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, jstevens@bendbulletin.com

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