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Students at Columbus High School stepped up in a big way for Special Olympics of Wisconsin.

Through collaboration with Project Unified, students raised more than $17,000 for Special Olympics. On Feb. 17, 40 students and teachers jumped into the icy cold waters of Lake Monona at the annual Polar Plunge in Madison. The fundraiser will help Special Olympics athletes purchase equipment for sports, cover travel expenses to tournaments and provide free health screenings.

Prior to the plunge, on Feb. 16, the school held a pep rally in the varsity gym and received a special gift from Special Olympics of Wisconsin. Liz Menzer, senior director of Unified Programs, presented a $4,000 check to Principal Jake Ekern and honored Columbus High School for having the top fundraising team in the Polar Plunge. Special Olympics gives 25 percent of the money raised back to the fundraising school.

Special education teacher Jahlieh Gardipee, who also serves as the school’s Project Unified advisor, was proud of her group’s efforts. Since beginning in 2012, the Columbus chapter has grown from 12 students to about 80.

“We’re not quite sure how we’re going to use that money yet,” Gardipee said. “We would like to use it to benefit programs but we would also like something tangible to remember this year.”

Project Unified promotes inclusiveness in schools and Menzer said Columbus High School has done a stellar job since joining the cause six years ago.

“Special Olympics wanted to provide a way for our schools, like Columbus, to become self-sustaining,” Menzer said. “This is a way we can help them earn some money to keep the program going. They are helping us; they’re creating a generation of young people who are socially aware and this helps provide some money back.”

Gardipee also praised the community for its generosity. Several students went door-to-door requesting help with their fund-raising campaigns. Top fundraisers included junior Sarah Zittel, sophomore Abby Dixon, freshman Peyton Priem, sophomore Ashtin Hemling and freshman Olivia Voelker. As a reward, the top five fundraisers had a chance to smother a cream pie in the face of teacher Sara Mooney at the rally.

“It really is a true testament to how much this group has done for the culture and community of our school and Columbus,” Gardipee said. “We’re a very small school and for us to be more involved than larger schools in the state is a pretty big deal to us. It’s pretty big for a school of 398 students to have 80 involved. Students believe everyone should have a safe, fun and inclusive place to go to school and to live.”

Through Project Unified, students learn about leadership, empowerment, self-advocacy and other valuable skills.

“It’s teaching people to be good people,” Gardipee said. “We have students that come to our schools from other districts because of Project Unified.”

Columbus Middle School also has a strong chapter, raising more than $3,000 for Special Olympics during the school year. Administrators from CMS also participated in the Polar Plunge Saturday. With a budding middle school program and more high school students joining, Columbus’ chapter could keep growing.

“This group changed my life so much since freshman year,” Zittel said. “I’ve learned a lot, especially leadership skills, and I just wanted to give back to this group.”

Ekern promised he would take part in the plunge if CHS raised at least $15,000. Not expecting students would raise that much, Ekern thought he would be spared from Lake Monona’s bone-chilling water. Not so fast.

“As cold as it’s going to be tomorrow, I do think it’s really awesome we raised that much money and we’re one of the top fundraising schools in the state,” Ekern said at the rally. “Normally I would be on top of the water ice fishing, but tomorrow I’ll see you on the other side of the lake.”

Contact Kevin Damask at 608-963-7323 or on Twitter @kdamask