The ocean off Campbell River was a frigid 8 C on Thursday, but that didn’t stop 11-year-old Sylas Thompson from taking the plunge at Tyee Spit.
Starting on Feb. 1, he’ll be swimming everyday in Discovery Passage, the stretch of water between Vancouver and Quadra islands, until he raises $30,000 to split between two local community groups, the Women’s Resource Centre and the Grassroots Kind Hearts Society.
“Once you dunk your head it’s like brr – you get the chills – but then it’s not that bad,” said Sylas, after he returned from a quick dip in the the water.
His grandmother, Sheryl Thompson, immediately wrapped him in a towel.
The sixth-grade student is planning to post daily updates on a Facebook page that’s in the works and a YouTube channel that already features a clip of him braving the cold surf.
“That’s what I’m going to be doing everyday!” he says after emerging from the sea in the video.
He’s hoping for crowds to support him during the daily swims – especially for the big inaugural plunge on Feb. 1 – which will take place around 3 or 3:15 p.m., after Sylas gets out of school.
The two groups benefiting from the fundraiser both support vulnerable people in Campbell River.
Grassroots Kind Hearts provides a daily hot meal to homeless people and others struggling with poverty.
The Women’s Resource Centre offers a wide range of services, including a poverty relief program that provides essentials like personal hygiene products, clothing and linens.
Donations can be accepted through GoFundMe, or through a bank account that will be set up under the name “Sylas Swims” – account number 754364 – at the Discovery Harbour branch of Coastal Community Credit Union, Sheryl said.
Sheryl, who volunteers with the Women’s Resource Centre, is supporting Sylas in his endeavour. She’s trying to instill in him a sense of positivity and compassion for less fortunate people, she said.
“What I want to teach my children, or show them, is how they can create within themselves a real healthy spirit,” Sheryl said.
She’s hoping that spirit will carry through the generations, and help create healthier communities.
Taking an ice-cold dip for charity has become something of a family tradition. Sylas got the idea for the fundraiser from his uncle, the late Jake Hebenton, one of Sheryl’s sons.
“I kinda want to help people like my Uncle Jake did,” Sylas said, as he sat in his home on the Wei Wai Kum reserve, not far from Tyee Spit.
|Sylas Thompson with his grandmother, Sheryl Thompson, at their home in Campbell River on Thursday. They’re holding a picture of the late “Polar Bear” Jake Hebenton – one of Sheryl’s sons – who swam in the icy waters of the Discovery Passage to raise funds for a gathering of elders and the local food bank. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror|
It started in 2000, when Hebenton was 10 years old and the BC Elders Gathering was coming up in Campbell River.
Gwen Olney, Sheryl’s sister, was in charge of coordinating food for the event.
The two sisters sat down at the kitchen table and brainstormed about how to raise money to feed the several thousand people coming to town, many of them with special dietary needs.
“Jake was in the kitchen and he overheard us talking,” Olney said. “He came back about half an hour later, and he said, ‘Auntie, I got it. I know how we can raise money.’”
The rest is history. He took pledges and swam everyday in February 2000, no matter how choppy the waters.
The initiative raised about $3,500 for the elders’ conference, Sheryl said, and it earned him the “Polar Bear” moniker. He later raised about $15,000 for the food bank with a daily plunge in November 2001.
In 2011, Hebenton died in a tragic ATV accident at the age of 22. At Tyee Spit, memorials to Hebenton include a placard, along with two sets of binoculars that passers-by can use to observe the Discovery Passage from the comfort of dry land. Written on the memorials is an old saying of Hebenton’s: “Kids can make a difference too.”
Following Hebenton’s death, his cousin Eddy Cliffe honoured his memory with another campaign of polar bear plunges.
Cliffe swam off Tyee Spit for 29 straight days in February 2012 – like in 2000, it was a leap year – also raising funds for the food bank. Looking back on the feat, he’s modest.
“I wasn’t nearly as successful as Jake was,” Cliffe said on Friday. “It was about two grand in cash and … I think about 13 boxes of food.”
He’ll be among the crowd cheering on Sylas as a new generation takes up the polar bear tradition.
“I’m really proud of him,” Cliffe said.
And while February only has 28 days this year, Sylas doesn’t have a fixed date for ending his frigid dips.
He plans to swim every day after school, and to continue until he meets his goal.
“As long as it takes,” Sylas said.