By Lura Readle Scarpitti
Photos by Tucker Joenz
Her first time out on a surfboard was a bit nerve-wracking for 13-year-old Avery. Understandable for anyone who has made the decision to surf without having tried it before. It is a bit intimidating getting out there, timing it just so that you catch the crest of the wave right before it breaks, and then maintaining your balance so that you make it in without wiping out. Even so, the lure is undeniable, and even those people who don’t surf have probably at least boogie-boarded or body-surfed, because letting a wave just take you along seems like such a natural thing to do.
There’s something about it. Almost everyone feels a connection with the sea, and for those who surf, nothing else matches that stoke you get when a wave carries you on its back towards the shore.
So, with some encouragement, anda lot of help, Avery went out for her first attempt at surfing. Andy, who had an 8-month head start on her,was close by and had already been in the water that day, going for his 8th wave of the session. Then there was 10 year-old Michelangelo, who was still assessing the situation with his mother. He would eventually go out though…and another shredder would be born.
The people gathered under colorful tents up on the beach watched and laughed and cheered as these brave adventurers went beyond their comfort zone and, as a result, found their faces fixed with a permanent grin as they were able to enjoy the thrill of taming the sea. It was just another day at the beach for Surf Quest.
Pete Skoglund, life-long surfer and founder of Surf Quest, understands this feeling. One afternoon as Skoglund was teaching his own kids to surf, the way that every surfing father does, by pushing them off onto waves, a friend
who was with them had a lightbulb moment: was there a way that people with disabilities could enjoy surfing too? Was there a way to teach them, or help them be able to stay on a board, so that they could get this feeling too?
The friend, Molly Ferraro, worked for The ARC of the St. Johns, a local, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing services for people with disabilities, and posed that question to Skoglund. Suddenly, they were working on all kinds of ideas to bring the healing power of the ocean, and of surfing, and just the ocean itself, to those who weren’t able to enjoy the sport because of disability — developmental, intellectual, physical…ANY kind. This was all new territory. They would need boards, volunteers, ways to get the people on the boards…and even to the water.
Even though the task was daunting, they weren’t discouraged. A date was set in November of 2014 and Skoglund, Ferraro, and Lynne Funcheon, who runs St. Johns Community Campus, an ARCaffilated charter school, worked towards that goal. Old City Life was there that cloudy, and chilly day when they first attempted what they called “Surf Quest.” While the skies were gray that day, spirits were not, and everyone in attendance that inaugural event walked away forever touched by the therapeutic force the ocean provided.
Since then, Surf Quest Beach Days has grown from a handful of volunteers, surfers and onlookers to almost 250 or 300 on any given session. They went from zero sponsors to many, including their biggest one to date, Ocean Grove RV Resort. They’ve perfected the process of matching an instructor (or sometimes more if the surfer needs a bit more assistance) to a surfer, getting them used to the idea, and then pushing them off on the wave with the coach close by or on the board if necessary. They’ve acquired more surfboards, and have had paddle boards donated, which are better suited to the specialized instruction required. They’ve even made it easier to get surfers who are wheelchair bound from the beach to the ocean, by using special chairs made of PVC pipe and outfitted with bigger tires to push through the sand.
Although it sounds like a serious, organized function, Funcheon says it’s anything but. “The most important thing for us was that it just felt like a day at the beach for everyone involved. We don’t want to feel ’scheduled’…ever. It’s got to have a laid-back, chill surfing vibe or else we don’t want to be a part of it at all. Everyone who is a part comes and goes as they choose and helps out if they want, or just hangs out with the crowd enjoying the day. We call it the ‘Surf Quest Ohana’ (meaning family and extended family and friends in Hawaiian) because that’s what it’s become.”
“People are always asking in what ways they can help,” Skoglund says, “and we say ‘Everything!’ If you want to be hands-on, just come down to the Mary Street beach when we’re having an event. You can’t miss us. We’ll find something for you to do. Of course, donations are always welcome, and there are a lot of opportunities for sponsorships.”
Three events into its 3rd full season, Funcheon says that the effect on the surfers has been profound. “They’re making strides socially through Surf Quest because they have something in common now with people that aren’t disabled. They don’t have to talk about physical therapy or treatments or whatever. They talk about, and communicate through, their shared love of the ocean. They form bonds with the instructors and the rest of the people who come out on a regular basis. Everyone, both those who are disabled and those who aren’t, look forward to every event and they share that excitement. The day after the event, the kids here (at the school) start asking ‘When’s the next one?’ It affords them an opportunity that’s not normally available to people with disabilities and they love every minute that they get to feel ‘normal.’”
For instance, according to her, Andy (whose name is actually Owen Stewart – he prefers to go by the name Andy), who has cerebral palsy and is completely wheelchair bound, is happiest when he’s on the water. He will ride over and over and over until someone finally has to say “You’ve got to rest for a little bit!” In fact, an illness forced him to miss an event last summer which made him extremely unhappy (something Funcheon says he let everyone know).
The program has been getting a lot of attention, as surfers and volunteers from all over the East Coast come to participate each month. The thing Skoglund was unsure would even work out, has grown beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.
Back to Avery, who also has cerebral palsy, and that first time out in August of 2016: after her ride, she was a bit… rattled, would be a good way to put it. The volunteers re-assurred her, got her back into her chair, gave her a ton of pats on the back and hugs, while she sat and chilled for a bit.
Then she looked at her dad, Mike Strausburg, who was with her on the beach and gave him the signal that she was ready to give it a go once more. This time when the ride was over, her smile told everyone that it was time to turn the board around and head out for another wave htis time with her still on it.
A year later, she gives Andy a run for his money for most waves caught in a day.