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Valley native Sgt. Katie Baldanza has recreated a Tempe tradition in Afghanistan. (Photo: Katie Baldanza)

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Tempe Compass. It was republished with permission.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Each year, the Lakes clubhouse community center in Tempe hosts what's called the Polar Plunge. The event is a fundraiser with proceeds going towards adapted-recreational programs for people with special needs.

Participants jump into ice cold water, all in an effort to raise money for local non-profits.

Denise Rentschler started the plunge in 2012 as a means to support people with special needs. The program was inspired by Rentschler's younger brother, Asa Lynn Draper, who had special needs and was helped by these types of programs.

This year there was another group that participated in the plunge, but pretty far from home.

US Army Reserve Sgt. Katie Baldanza, a Valley native, is deployed in Kabul, Afghanistan. After being a financial supporter of the fundraiser for the last few years, Baldanza decided she wanted to help expand the event.

In Kabul, Baldanza recruited other soldiers to hold a 5K race and a Polar Plunge themselves. The group woke up early, ran the race and jumped into ice cold water to top it all off. At the time of their plunge, the temperature outside was a bone-chilling 19 degree degrees.

"It took some convincing to get soldiers to wake up, run a 5K in 19-degree weather and then jump into water that was sitting overnight," Baldanza said. "I posted fliers for over a month and stood outside the chow hall with shirts preaching the cause. But once word got out a lot of soldiers thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Baldanza said that she volunteers regularly with the Mesa Special Olympics adaptive basketball program at home, but decided to find something that she could do to stay involved from overseas.

She talked about 40 people into signing up for the Polar Plunge in Kabul, and that's not including people who were watching and decided to jump in the water at the last second.

"I raised almost $1,000. I am still selling t-shirts to hopefully hit that magic number," she said.

As a whole, the program raised about $7,500 this year. All of the money will go towards groups like Tempe's Buddy Bowling, Camp Challenge, the Tempe Special Olympics, the Arc of Tempe and Fabulous Friday Night Dances.

"It was an amazing experience overall," Baldanza said. "I was able to support a cause I believe in, I was able to jump in freezing water with some of my best friends, and I was able to spread the word."

After her 11-month deployment in Afghanistan, she will return home later this year and hopes to participate in the next plunge from home. If she's deployed again, Baldanza said she has no doubt she will work to set it up for a second time.

For more information on how to help raise money for the Polar Plunge, go to lakespolarbearplunge.com.

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