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The polar bear mascot returns home to Sea Isle City, but people continue to donate. (Image courtesy of Mike's Seafood)

By MADDY VITALE

Mike and Jeannie Monichetti, organizers of the Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Run/Walk for Autism in Sea Isle City, had no idea what to expect when they held a virtual fundraiser that is wrapping up this month.

In the previous 12 years, they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the worthy cause through a live run and walk on Sea Isle’s Promenade. But they wondered how they could reach a lofty goal of $80,000 for autism causes, services and programs in 2021 with a virtual fundraiser during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal was shattered.

By Saturday, the total neared $92,000 and over the next few days, Mike said he expected the figure to be in the ballpark of $102,000 as more donations are pledged.

And they did it with a virtual polar bear that traveled “Around the World in 80 Days.”

For every $10 donated toward the fundraiser, the polar bear mascot traveled a mile.

“To raise $100,000 through a virtual fundraiser is unbelievable. The businesses and the community believe in our cause. They are supporting our dream,” Mike Monichetti said. “A lot of the donations come from the loyal and faithful customers. They aren’t just customers, they are special people. And I am very grateful to the people of Sea Isle City.”

The Monichettis have four children, including two who have autism, Kara Mia, 20, and 19-year-old son, Michael Jr. They also have a son, Luke, 16, and 22-year-old daughter, Mary Kate.

Jeannie Monichetti said the family was thrilled by the outpouring of support for their autism fundraiser.

“We are, really. We hoped to get near $100,000, but didn’t expect it. A lot of people give year after year. Every year they get behind us,” she noted.

She added that they were especially humbled by the fact that people donated amid a difficult year.

The polar bear mascot “left” Sea Isle on Thanksgiving Day with the goal of making it around the world, or 24,901 miles, and back home by Feb. 14.

He made it back, and the checks from business owners, residents and people who participated in the previous run/walk for autism events continue to give.

Year after year, Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Run and Walk for Autism, attracts thousands of participants.

The Monichettis sent mailers out about the fundraiser to 2,900 homes of people who participated in their prior run/walk autism fundraisers.

People from New Jersey and Pennsylvania were sent most of the mailers. Others from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska were also sent mailers asking for a donation.

“Today, we got six envelopes,” Mike said about the donations that arrived in the mail Saturday. “We got two yesterday and we will probably get more on Monday.”

Two hundred area businesses that sponsor the event and give each year to the cause also received mailers.

Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, when restrictions on group gatherings made it apparent that the Monichettis couldn’t hold the live event, there was some consideration of not doing anything at all.

And then, Jeannie’s friend, Toni Grdinich, came up with the idea to host a virtual fundraiser.

“I thought, ‘Why not put it out there and see what will happen?'” Mike recalled. “Any day you can raise money for children with disabilities, it’s a good day.”

As the donations continue to come in, the Monichettis say it feels surreal.

“You almost have to pinch yourself when you think a virtual polar bear going around the world could raise $100,000,” Mike noted. “I’m having a hard time wrapping myself around this. But based on this, I am encouraged about having another virtual event.”

But if COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in time for next year’s autism fundraiser, the Monichettis hope it will return to a live event.

“Hopefully next year the run/walk will be back and bigger than ever, if things get back to normal,” Mike said. “If not, the polar bear will set course for faraway lands.”

These two families recently gave donations to the virtual fundraiser and said a few words in posts on the fundraiser site https://givebutter.com/polarbearrunwalk2021?fbclid=IwAR1-n9TNNV_85Jcm3-hQVtyFIn92-E_IybQSEzrZVIaB0fud79bpaJhvZDQ about the significance of the Monichettis’ continued push to educate people about autism and help those with it.

The Vanderslice family said: “Here’s to getting back to the Run/Walk next year! Best wishes to all the families! We are thinking of you.”

Joe and Beth Lynch said,It is an honor to support this fantastic cause. We wish we were able to be there to donate in person. Thank you for all your hard work supporting this! Sending love!!”

To learn more about Mike’s Seafood Run/Walk for Autism visit, www.polarbearrunwalkforautism.com or call (609) 602-5734.

The virtual fundraiser showcased the mascot’s travels across the globe. (Image courtesy of Mike’s Seafood)