updated 04/09/2014 AT 5:25 PM ET
•originally published 04/11/2014 AT 10:25 AM ET
When he was one day past four months old last February, Landon Shaw kept vomiting and losing weight, prompting his anxious parents to take him to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. The diagnosis: a rare malignant cancer that affects the kidneys, liver, lungs and brain.
“I held our son so tight asking God why?” Landon’s mom, Alyssa, wrote on Facebook.
Friends and neighbors in their small northwest Missouri town of Tarkio, population 1,500, began asking what they could do – and to everyone’s surprise, the answer was a wet, splashy campaign of love and support that has gone coast-to-coast and to several countries.
“The idea is you plunge into cold water and challenge at least three people,” explains Joshua Wright on the Facebook page Plunge for Landon. “You then say you will donate X amount of dollars for each who jumps within 24 HOURS!”
Lydia Chapin Hurst, 39, says that the dare was dreamed up by “a bunch of Christian dads out being silly” (indeed, her husband Brooks was one of the first), and since it was launched online March 30 they’ve raised more than $60,000, with 31,000-plus members on the site.
“God took over and it just exploded,” she tells PEOPLE. “There’s just no other way to describe it.”
Supporters have been recording and posting their increasingly inventive splashdowns in everything from farm ponds to cold showers.
“Get better Landon!” said Kyle Kleeman, of Houston, Tex, stepping into an ice-filled whirlpool. Wayne Gelston, of West Mifflin, Penn., plunged into the Monongahela River. And students from Tarkio High School screamed and yelled as they jumped into a cold lake.
Missouri Congressman Sam Graves donned suit-and-tie for his dive into the Potomac, and extended the challenge the Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and to State Rep. Mike Thomson, who then challenged the entire Missouri House of Representatives. “This my opportunity to tell them to go jump in a lake,” Thomson said, “for a very good cause, of course.”
“At first, as a family, it was hard to look at it,” Landon’s grandmother Rhonda Wiley, 47, tells PEOPLE. “You’d want to look at it, but when you did, it would make you cry. The love was just pouring out. And then it went from that to where people were just plunging and doing such funny stuff, you would laugh and cry. And that’s where we are today.
“The plunges have given us laughter whenever we’ve needed it, and most of all, prayers,” she adds.
“We as a family are taking this one day at a time. Landon has been a miracle to us many times in these last six weeks. When they give us no hope, a few hours later the doctors are scratching their heads in disbelief because the little man has pulled through,” she says.
“While we haven’t been given as much hope as we would like to have heard, we know that he’s already been a miracle.”
Contributions may be sent to Landon Shaw c/o The Flower Mill, 606 Main St., Tarkio Mo., 64491 or through Paypal via email@example.com.