I didn’t even surf during the most gratifying surf session of my life.
My buddy ‘Steiny,’ a surfer and UCSB student (who I write about so often cause he’s a shred machine), was involved in this volunteer program while he worked as a lifeguard and surfed in westside Santa Cruz. It sounded interesting, and I trusted Steiny, so I went for it. It was Oct. 3, 2009, and I was a volunteer for a surf organization that helps children with special needs enjoy the thrill of surfing.
[media-credit name=”Photo Courtesy of bestdayfoundation.org” align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit] We woke up some time around dawn that Saturday and shlepped a couple of boards and our wetsuits with us to the Ventura Harbor, where volunteers from two organizations had assembled for the weekend.
There were about 50 kids there, along with parents, a host of volunteers from Ride a Wave foundation and the Best Day foundation, and a couple of news cameras. There was also a crew of juveniles serving out its court-mandated community service hours for the day. The poor suckers had to dig a massive sand pit for an obstacle course the kids used at lunch. I guess not everyone was a volunteer.
We unloaded trailers full of custom surfboards — some were 18-feet-long with customized wheelchair mounts for handicapped riders — and heaps of wetsuits, lifeguarding surfboards, double-wide boogie boards and heaps of other fine-tuned surf equipment for children with special needs.
The kids varied in their capabilities and disabilities. Several had developmental disabilities, while several more seemed to have some cognitive impairments, were blind or deaf, battling cancer or phasing out of chemo.
I couldn’t believe the bravery of those children. Even to someone who has spent his life around it, the ocean is gigantic and unpredictable. And for those kids — some of whom couldn’t even see, some who couldn’t speak, some who had probably never set foot in the ocean and/or demonstrated problems attaining full ranges of physical motion — the sea must’ve been incomprehensible and terrifying at first.
Trying to steer a surfboard that’s twice or three times the size of your regular board while a newbie surfer perches in front of you is not easy. Not at all. Luckily, the crew of talented volunteers in the water and on the beach were there exclusively to help the kids surf. We, the volunteers, were their eyes, ears, voices and extra limbs in the water. Every child was assigned to a team of surfers, several of whom would wade or swim next to the child, while one surfer on the extra-sized surfboard rode the wave with the child and stabilized the ride.
The majority of the time I helped kids onto surfboards and kept close watch to make sure that each child was safe. One particularly striking moment was when this little autistic tyke named Jack, who I was shepherding around the beach, lost his balance and tumbled into my arms. Luckily, the tide was low and I had my feet planted on the bottom so I could hold Jack, but I was completely submerged while I walked to shore holding him over my head above water level. While we didn’t actually speak to each other (Jack wasn’t able to fully articulate coherent speech as part of his autism) the desperate hug that little guy gave me as I carried him to shore before venturing out in the water with him to try again said it all.
That day, I helped a child without vision stand poised on a surfboard, beaming with all of his face as spray kicked into it. I helped a pack of kids feel, for their first time, the surge of adrenaline that accompanies the tossing and vibrancy of the ocean. I felt the delight of all the volunteers with me firsthand and reveled in our camaraderie, our shared drive to pass our stoke on to those less fortunate.
It was probably the best day of my life. I state that confidently, without hubris. Not ironically, one of the volunteer organizations participating that October day is named the Best Day Foundation for its efforts.
The vast majority of my weeklies end along the lighthearted lines of “Go surfing, it’s good for you.” However, sometimes it’s just not that simple. Going surfing isn’t always an easy prospect to tackle. When you are confronted by special needs such as health conditions, the idea of setting foot in the ocean can seem like a distant hope. That’s why organizations like Ride a Wave and Best Day are crucial. As a volunteer for these philanthropies, you are these children’s natural crutch to lean on.
I hope those kids remember that day for the rest of their lives. I also hope everyone who reads this takes the time to visit bestdayfoundation.org and rideawave.org to learn how they can contribute to the joy helping others surf. Both organizations have extended their philanthropic efforts nationally. Regardless of skill level, volunteers are needed to expand their efforts further.