AccesSurf Lets Everyone Have a Day at the Beach
O‘ahu nonprofit AccesSurf’s signature monthly event helps get people with disabilities onto the sand and into the water.
For many of us, a day at the beach is a snap. We call up our friends, pack the necessary beach supplies, get in our cars and drive down to whatever shoreline we fancy on that particular day. But for people with physical or mental disabilities, it’s an entirely different story: From managing transportation to finding a beach that’s accessible, it can be a long journey. So it’s moving to witness AccesSurf’s monthly Day at the Beach event—the nonprofit’s signature monthly program that gets people with disabilities into the water and surfing. They’re joined by volunteers, families, and a core group of staff members dedicated to creating an environment where everyone can have their perfect day at the beach.
It started small. Like, really small. In 2006, recreational therapist Mark Marble had a mission. He’d known for years that the ocean was a place of healing, however some of the people who needed that respite most—those with physical and mental impairments—had the hardest time getting into the water. Partnering with Rich Julian, an adaptive athlete who continued to surf after being partially paralyzed at 14 from a car accident, the pair started AccesSurf with a simple mission in mind: to help get people with disabilities into the water.
Since its humble beginnings, AccesSurf has seen growth in not just the number of participants and volunteers, but as a community. At its Day at the Beach morning meeting—which typically takes place at either White Plains Beach near ‘Ewa Beach or Waikīkī Beach, on O‘ahu’s south shore—volunteers stand in a large circle around a few key leaders who share announcements and welcome newbies to the fold. The colors of their shirts represent their assigned roles: From the white shirted transfer teams, who help get participants from the sand to the water, to surf instructors in light green; waterbeach safety folks in black; and pushers in red shirts, who assist surf instructors in moving participants around in the water; and more, the AccesSurf machine is well-oiled.
“This wouldn’t happen, on all levels, without the volunteers,” says executive director Cara Short, who started as a volunteer in 2008 before moving into her current role in 2012. She explains that volunteers are part of a tiered system, with each group having a key leader. That key leader is someone who has been with AccesSurf for years and oversees a group’s entire operation. Then there are leaders, who report directly to the key leaders and act as their assistants. The volunteers comprise the final tier.
Transfer volunteers work as a team to safely move participants—or “access surfers,” as Short calls them—down to the water. Surf instructors, meanwhile, are lively and chat it up with participants and fellow volunteers, creating a warm and welcoming environment. And water safety and pusher volunteers make sure everybody stays in the sectioned-off portion of the beach, where the waves are smaller and there are fewer everyday surfers. Finally, the leaders and key leaders stay vigilant to ensure everything is going swimmingly.
“The leaders take their roles very seriously,” says Short, “because it’s a really serious situation and we need that level of attention.” And if Short or any of the other key leaders get feedback on roles that could be useful for future events, they’ll consider adding them for next time. “Our small staff works with the volunteer community as well as the leadership committee, which meets every month and goes over program logistics as well as touching base on what worked and what didn’t,” says Short.
Out of the water, the vibe is much more relaxed. Volunteers and participants cruise on the sand, getting to know one another and helping to foster the already extensive community AccesSurf has created. “The simple concept was that we need access, and from there it grew and grew and grew,” says Short. “And now it’s this big community, and being a part of it is almost a bigger piece of AccesSurf than getting in the water.” For many participants, AccesSurf’s Day at the Beach serves as a refrain from feeling excluded and isolated. Here, on the warm sands of White Plains Beach, they’re among friends, free to chat and laugh and enjoy the day.
“We tell people that you don’t have to be a water person to volunteer; even if you’re here to just talk story and meet people, that’s volunteering for us,” says Short. “We’ll have people who just want to be at the beach and socialize. Just meeting one person can make a huge difference.”
A Day at the Beach is hosted on the first Saturday of every month. For more information on AccesSurf and to sign up as a volunteer, visit accessurf.org.
This story was originally published in our 2023 Winter issue. Buy a copy here.