They’re Freezin’ for a Reason: 78 Dippers Join 24th Annual February Freeze To Raise Funds For Habitat for Humanity

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The 78 dippers who raised over $146,000 for the Eastern Shore Habitat for Humanity at Saturday’s February Freeze pose for a photo on the beach before racing into the Chesapeake Bay.

Story and Photos by Bill Sterling
Special to the Eastern Shore Post

With a trace of snow still on the ground and temperatures in the lower 40s, 78 dippers plunged into the Chesapeake Bay on Saturday for the 24th Annual February Freeze in Cape Charles to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity. And the funds they raised — $146,012 — were beyond the wildest dreams of the event’s organizers.

“There was a time not all that long ago we would raise $5,000 to $10,000 at our February Freeze and thought we had a really successful fundraiser,” said Barb Iman, president of the Eastern Shore Habitat for Humanity Board. “But then we started naming celebrity dippers, and the numbers started going up.”

This year, the dollars soared past the highest expectations of the board, more than doubling last year’s total of $63,143, which had more than doubled the previous high of $28,833 in 2017.

Penney Holland, the February Freeze chairwoman, said the bulk of the credit for the record-setting total goes to 2020 Celebrity Dipper Todd Burbage. “Todd brought such incredible passion and zeal to this event. From the time we asked him to be our Celebrity Dipper, he has worked very hard to make it the success we see today.”

Celebrity Dipper Todd Burbage with his girlfriend Jayme Mahoney and his dog Willis before they led 78 participants in the Chesapeake Bay as part of Saturday’s February Freeze.

Burbage, attired in a penguin suit prior to making his plunge in the bay, said he was honored to be asked to lead the dippers and felt it was a great way to give back to the community that has been so supportive of his family. “We have projects all along the East Coast, and the Eastern Shore has been as welcoming and warm to us as any area we’ve been,” said Burbage, whose company, Blue Water Development, based out of Ocean City, Md., includes properties on Chincoteague and lower Northampton County.

Burbage said Habitat for Humanity is a great cause to support. “This organization provides hope and the basic needs for a family, and that is all anyone can ask for.”

Joining Burbage on his dip was his girlfriend, Jayme Mahoney, and his yellow lab, Willis, named after Willis Wharf. He also gave credit to his family in attendance, including his father, Jack, founder of Blue Water Development, co-workers and corporate sponsors, Taylor Bank, Sun Communities and 1st Choice Services, all of whom helped raise a staggering $77,820 for his team.

Last year’s Celebrity Dipper, Richard Davis, returned to raise just over $22,000, and then his employer, Lipman Farms, doubled the amount to reach $44,000.

Braden Downing was the top youth fundraiser with $2,700 and led his team, Montessori School, as the top youth group, winning a trophy and a pizza party.

Northampton County Sheriff David Doughty, the 2014 Celebrity Dipper, pledged that year to bring back a team each year and raised $9,000 from his team for Saturday’s fundraiser.

Jeff Holland, the 2015 Celebrity Dipper and executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, was present Saturday, supporting his wife, this year’s event director.
Following the dip into the bay, lunch was served at the Trinity United Methodist Social Hall.

Habitat for Humanity Provides Housing for Those in Need

Habitat for Humanity’s event Saturday is also called “Freezin’ For A Reason.” Proceeds are used to help provide vital housing for those in need on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In 1988, a group of concerned citizens led by the Rev. David Rash organized the Eastern Shore Affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. (This reporter attended that first meeting.) The Rev. Rash is now retired and living in central Virginia.

The group felt many houses in the area did not have adequate plumbing or structural standards that were conducive to healthy living conditions. They knew that at the time they could not remedy the situation overnight, so they chose a methodical approach that would bring about change, one family at a time.

The 49th home is now under construction, and in April a groundbreaking will be held for the 50th home. Michelle Bell, 31, a special education teacher at Nandua High School, and her two children, Trey, 8, and Malani, 7, are excited about the prospects of moving into the 50th home, which will be built outside Melfa.

“We have waited a long time for this and now it is about to happen we are thrilled beyond words,” said Bell at Saturday’s fundraiser. “Both kids are in a small bedroom now, and the new house will have three bedrooms so everyone can have their own space. I’ve been a single mom for seven years now and it hasn’t been easy. I can’t thank Habitat for Humanity enough for this opportunity.”

The model for Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976 by Linda and Millard  Fuller of Georgia and greatly boosted when championed by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn, is that homeowners are invested in the process. They purchase the home from Habitat for Humanity at cost with a 25- or 30-year interest-free mortgage. During construction, they commit to performing 350 hours of labor, or sweat equity. Bell also has been volunteering at the Habitat thrift store.

The demand for adequate housing is great. Last year, 164 requests were received from applicants hoping to acquire a Habitat for Humanity home on the Eastern Shore. Each applicant is required to attend one meeting at which the entire process is explained. A completed application must be submitted, and all applications are vetted for debt history and verification of employment.

Iman, who has been involved in the selection process for many years now, said Saturday, “It is an incredibly difficult job selecting finalists from the families who meet the requirements and then eventually choosing the two families a year who will actually move into the homes.” Iman added that selection committee members visit prospective families at their home, where their current living situation is evaluated for urgency of need.

Nancy Gonzalez has been the executive director of Eastern Shore Habitat for Humanity for 18 years, a length of service unmatched by few nonprofits anywhere. “My husband, Tom, was helping to construct Habitat homes, so I became interested and said I would serve as executive director for six months. All this time later I am still here. I get to work closely with the families moving into the homes, and that is what keeps me motivated and excited. To see the joy on their faces when they move into a new home of their dreams is a blessing.”

Todd Burbage, in his penguin suit, was the Celebrity Dipper who led 78 participants into the Chesapeake Bay as part of Saturday’s February Freeze that raised $146,012 for Habitat for Humanity.

Gonzalez said the funds raised at Saturday’s fundraiser would nearly buy materials for two homes. The current model for a Habitat house is just over 1,000 square feet with three bedrooms, 1½ baths, kitchen ,dining room, living room utility with washer and dryer, a shed and a heat pump. Habitat’s costs for a typical house are approximately $85,000.

Volunteers supervised by four part-time Habitat employees build the homes. Currently, 20 groups come from off the Shore to spend anywhere from a day to a week to help build homes, as well as local volunteers who pitch in to help with construction, office help, working in the thrift shop or working with the Habitat families.

Iman, who is serving the final year of her three-year term as board president, one of several terms she has served in the position, says she is proud of the commitment of Habitat volunteers. She notes many Habitat volunteers are longtime supporters, including retired minister Wayne Parsley, who served on the board for eight years and is now the organization’s chaplain. Also active in supervising the construction process and often a host for volunteer work groups, Parsley recently was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Eastern Shore Habitat for Humanity.

“God’s hand is involved in the entire process,” said Iman. “One of the keys to our success is our board members have a passion for what they are doing. They know they are making a huge difference in our community and in the lives of our Habitat homeowners.”