Frosty temperatures did little to cool the enthusiasm of more than 100 Cabot employees, farmers and their families who leapt into the icy waters of Lake Champlain on February 2 during the 24th annual Special Olympics Vermont Penguin Plunge.
Cabot “plungers,” as they are technically called, ran out proudly to chants of “The World’s Best Cheddar!” Some plunged in full plaid suits, plaid face paint and plaid hats. Others carried blow-up penguins in plaid waist coats and rang cowbells; the latter are not uncommon props for those plunging, but the Cabot team surely had the most right to that instrument.More than 100 enthusiastic, proudly plaid Cabot team members—farmers to the CEO—jumped into an icy Lake Champlain during the recent Special Olympics Vermont Penguin Plunge. No better way to show the co-op’s spirit of community as we… Click To Tweet
These brave co-op team plungers were not only celebrating the work of Special Olympics—which provides sports training and competition, health screenings, and leadership opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities—they were commemorating Cabot’s 2019 Centennial by banding together to give back.
“One of Cabot’s core values is being representatives in your community,” said Allison Akins, 25, who jumped as both a co-op member-farmer and a Cabot employee. The 25-year-old still works on her family’s Five Mile Farm in Lisbon, New York during the weeks she is not traveling the country as a Cabot brand ambassador. “Farmers often serve in local government, coach youth sports, volunteer as firefighters,” she explained. “It’s always about giving back to your community.”
It was a chilly and invigorating experience, Allison said a couple days after the event when her frozen t-shirt had thawed and her teeth had stopped chattering. “It was so much fun!” she said. “There was such a variety of Cabot people doing it. There was senior management and kids, farmers and people who work in IT and in cut-and-wrap. Just seeing that diversity and camaraderie was really neat.”
After the final tally, Cabot claimed the largest number of participants from any business and the second-highest team donation, raising just shy of $30,000. The money will be put to very good use, as Cabot CEO Ed Townley and his family know personally. Last year, Penguin Plunge fundraising underwrote nearly 40% of the non-profit’s operating budget, which allows it to serve 1,310 Special Olympics athletes along with 400 Unified partners who train and compete with the athletes. The movement is about building inclusive communities and Ed’s son, Ben, now 21, has been an active participant for much of his life, competing in everything from skiing to running, soccer to bocce.
This Plunge was the ninth for Ben, and the eighth for his dad. During elementary school, “he begged us to let him do it,” Ed recalled, “but we said, ‘No, you’re not going to jump in an icy lake.’” Then Ben reached his 12th birthday and insisted that was what he wanted for his birthday. His parents conceded, as long as he raised the minimum donation amount, which he did. (He has since gone on to become one of the top single fundraisers.) Ed went along to help his son navigate the event, “but I got just as wet as if I’d done the Plunge, so I figured I might as well do it the next year,” he explained.
After the co-op decided to try to field a record-breaking team this year, Ed shared his learning curve with fellow Cabot employees. “I told them about the first time I did it,” he detailed. “I started wading in slowly up to my waist and then realized I had to go under. I sat down and got a serious brain freeze. I realized after that year, you’ve got to run, get in and get out.” Surprisingly enough, after Ed presented these insights, sign-ups did not soar. “At which point,” he reported with a chuckle, “the marketing department said, ‘We’ll take it from here.’”
Steve Kayhart and his brother, Tim, who run Kayhart Brothers Dairy in West Addison, saw on Facebook that the co-op was trying to get 100 people to plunge for Cabot’s 100th birthday and thought they’d give it a try. Two of their employees joined them. Beyond the community support aspect, Steve said, “I thought it sounded like fun. These are the kinds of events you do with people and you all make great memories.”
For Ed Townley, getting the whole company involved, including a number of farmers, made the 2019 Penguin Plunge an extra-special way to embark upon the co-op’s second century. “It really demonstrates our involvement in the community around us. Cabot is not a company that’s just sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “The farmers represent the heart of Vermont and the type of employees we have emulate the heart of the farmer. It’s a giving heart, a community-based heart.”