LONG BRANCH, NEW JERSEY
Austin Bramson is about to ride on a surfboard for the first time, and that will be quite an accomplishment. The 15 year old has a rare genetic disorder, and is unable to speak or walk.
His mother, Nancy Cruse, explains that since birth, he has been totally dependent on others for his care. "He will always be in diapers. He needs to be fed. He can not self feed at all, he can not self drink. He can not dress himself. He’s in a wheelchair which he can not operate himself."
Yet now, wearing a life-jacket and water safety helmet, Austin is getting ready to ride the waves rolling into this Atlantic shore. He's one of dozens of developmentally and physically challenged kids who've come to the popular seashore in Long Branch, New Jersey, to have one of their "best days at the beach."
Volunteers put their arms around his body, lift him out of his wheel chair, and lay him on his stomach on top of a surfboard.
The volunteers carry him out into the ocean about 15 meters from the shore and when the right wave comes along, Austin starts riding it in with the help of a volunteer who’s lying on the back of the same surfboard.
There’s a wide grin on Austin’s face as he comes ashore. His arms and legs wiggle with excitement.
His mother beams. "It just had to be pure joy. Just had to be pure joy. I just, the smile on his face I haven’t seen that smile in a long time from him. So I mean I started to cry. You wonder sometimes when you have a child with a disability: are they happy and to see that I knew he was happy. At that moment, he was happy."
Best Day at the Beach is a day when young people from ages 4 to 24 with developmental and physical disabilities can get help surfing, boogie-boarding and kayaking -- and draw cheers from their families, friends and volunteers.
"Really, it’s about showing kids what’s possible and showing everyone what’s possible," says Max Montgomery, a longtime surfer who co-founded Best Day at the Beach four years ago in his native California after being inspired by a similar local program. "We have parents come down and tell us 'Oh, my kid is not going to do this.' And then they’re standing there with tears watching their kid exceed their wildest dreams. We have kids come down here saying they’ve dreamed of being a surfer and yet maybe they’re in a wheel chair. And we get them out in the water, surfing."
While some of the kids very rare disorders, like Austin, most of the new surfers have disabilities such as Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism.
Best Day at the Beach sponsors about 20 events each year at Atlantic and Pacific beaches. Montgomery says each one gives about 40 special-needs children and young adults the chance to ride the waves.
"There’s just something about tapping into the power of the ocean and feeling freedom and to be able to help someone experience that is truly a blessing," he says.
Dozens of volunteers come out to help Montgomery with his events. New York attorney Eliot Bickoff spent the day surfing with one kid after another.
Growing up, Bickoff spent his weekends on the Jersey Shore.
"I’m a surfer myself [and an] avid waterman," he says. "And it’s just a great opportunity to share the sport with other people, you know, let everybody have a fun time and try a sport that otherwise would be pretty tough or inaccessible."
"Awesome, dude!" says Jenny Heath-Kaplan,12, who is autistic, as she rides a surfboard, just as she did on her first trip to Best Day at the Beach last year.
Her mother, Wendy Heath, says the fun and social interactions help Jenny progress.
"Often times we find when we give her an experience like this she gets a language surge," Heath says. "On the way home, she’ll say things that we’ve never heard her say before. So I think that thrill, translates into that sort of surge."
Each time Jenny finishes riding a wave to the shore, she asks for another trip. The volunteers get ready to take her out again, giving her the Best Day at the Beach possible.