An Ocean of Possibilities
For the past 15 years, AccesSurf has been riding a wave of success in making ocean activities accessible to those with disabilities.
Spend any time on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and the allure of the ocean will come calling, welcoming locals and visitors alike to jump in its warm waters to swim, surf or paddle. But for those with disabilities, a day at the beach can be more stressful — or impossible — than enjoyable.
In 2006, all that changed when buddies Mark Marble and Rich Julian put their heads together and came up with a solution to help those with disabilities take part in ocean activities safely: AccesSurf.
“There is a true focus on inclusion,” says executive director Cara Short. “And it changes lives.”
Short got involved with the organization in 2008 after seeing an AccesSurf poster promoting a community ocean day. The nonprofit’s mission resonated deeply with the Canada native, whose niece has cerebral palsy.
“As soon as I went to the program, I fell in love,” recalls Short. “There’s something about the energy and the experience; it quite honestly changed my life. And that was just my first day as a volunteer.”
Over the past 15 years, the nonprofit has created an ocean of opportunities for those wanting to get in the water. Its free Days at the Beach every first Saturday gives those with disabilities the chance to experience water activities with specialized equipment under the watchful eye of trained volunteers. On the same wavelength is the Wounded Warrior Day at the Beach for service members that takes place every third Wednesday. The pandemic put a lot of its programs on hold, and AccesSurf is excited to once again be starting back up some of its signature clinics with modifications to keep everyone safe. A full schedule can be found online at accessurf.org/events.
“We have core programs, like Day at the Beach, where everyone comes for an introduction to adaptive water sports,” explains Short. “Then we run smaller clinics, so if someone comes to Day at the Beach and wants to be more independent or increase their skills and technique, we now offer surfing, swimming and paddling clinics.”
AcesSurf’s mission is to create water-centric opportunities for those with disabilities, and a big part of that includes those who want to compete at higher levels. It’s why the organization created the Hawai‘i Adaptive Surf Team program in 2015. For the past six years, the team’s 20-25 members have competed all over the world, medaling at events like the Hale‘iwa International Open, USA National Surf Competition, and the International Surf Association Adaptive World Championships. Coming up, a team of 12 will head to California to compete in the 2021 ISA World Para Surfing Championship.AccesSurf was also instrumental in launching the Hawai‘i Adaptive Surfing Championships, an international tournament that hosts upward of 80 athletes.
“We want people to know that there is a path, there is support,” Short says. “If adaptive surfing is a sport that someone is interested in pursuing, we can help them gain skills, and have coaching, leadership and mentorship.”
In her 13 years with AccesSurf, Short has seen tremendous change in the nonprofit that’s grown so close to her heart. The shift from volunteer to program coordinator in 2012 and then to executive director in 2014 proved to be challenging for Short, but being part of an organization like AccesSurf has her feeling fortunate.
“I’m so blessed to be able to have this be my job,” she says. “The experience of being the executive director has been an honor, and I’ve learned a lot. It certainly makes me proud to be part of this community.
“Running a nonprofit at the best of times can be stressful, but in the last year-and-a-half, it has been a challenge. I’ve been impressed with our community and organization and how we were able to adjust and still serve our members.”
To keep its community engaged during the pandemic, AccesSurf started hosting virtual events, like online exercise programs and classes to keep people in shape, as well as Talk Story Tuesdays, which incorporates interviews with adaptive water athletes from around the world. A big part of these online endeavors is AccesSurf training and innovation lead Ann Yoshida, who created the Fitness For All program that focuses on adaptable workouts.
“They’re all centered around water activities, like paddling, surfing or swimming,” explains Yoshida, a 2016 Paralympian. “I work with people and give them ideas of how to adapt each workout.”
A full list of online events can be found at accessurf.org/weekly-virtual-meetings.
AccesSurf and its staff of six are bolstered by a volunteer base of nearly 1,000 — including its board, leadership committees, coaches, lifeguards, therapists and more — and the community at large whose members have been supportive in giving of time and money to the grassroots nonprofit.
“The key to our success is our volunteer support,” adds Short. “They’ve made Acces-Surf possible.”
For more information, visit accessurf.org.