‘Best Day’ Brings Surf Event to LBI for Kids With Special Needs

Section Two
By JON COEN | Jul 19, 2012
Photo by: Monte Crofts Best Day Foundation, Ventura, Calif.

What is your best day of the summer? Maybe it’s a big fishing trip out of Barnegat Light. It could be competing in one of the lifeguard competitions or paddle races. Your band playing the Gateway in Ship Bottom? Perhaps a family reunion in Peahala Park? For some it will be an epic day of waves.

But there are some children who face physical and social hurdles so challenging that they’ve never had a chance to catch a fluke, paddle a race board or play guitar. This weekend, a national organization is coming to Hudson Avenue in Harvey Cedars to give some kids their best day of the summer.

It’s aptly called the Best Day Foundation, and it started in 2008 to enable children with special needs to build confidence and self-esteem by making friends and riding waves. It was founded in Santa Cruz, Calif., by two longtime volunteers of the California-based Ride A Wave program. West Coast surfers Max Montgomery and Brooks Lambert sought to spread the idea to other communities. Today there are chapters in Ventura, Calif., and New Jersey. This summer there will be six beach gatherings, with Best Day’s first-ever event on Long Beach Island this Saturday, July 21.

“I first saw a small ad on the Surfline website while checking for waves in Surf City,” said Kerry Murphy of Harvey Cedars. “I clicked and thought that this is something even a surfer could do to give back. I signed up as a volunteer, and went to one of their events in the summer of 2009. As I continued volunteering each summer, I met some parents of the children who were from LBI who asked, ‘Why don’t we have this on LBI?’ I did not have an answer then, but I asked Max Montgomery if it would be possible to have an event here.”

Murphy attended a Harvey Cedars borough meeting in January with John and Trisha Henkes of Union, N.J., as well as Ric Anastasi of Beach Haven.

“With the help of Tricia and John, who are more experienced volunteers, as well as Harvey Cedars Commissioner Mike Garofalo, we were able to bring the first of what we hope will be many Best Day events to the Island allowing many children to ride waves,” Murphy said.

The foundation already holds events in Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park (Long Branch), Loch Arbour, and Brick Beach. The group originally requested permits for Saturday and Sunday events, but Mayor Jonathon Oldham and the Board of Commissioners wants to see how one day goes for the first year.

“We were looking to expand further south, and LBI was one of the first locations that came to mind,” said John Henkes, who has been volunteering since 2008. He is now on the board for the New Jersey chapter. “We talked to some residents and came to the conclusion that it would be a great fit.”

At each event, families who have pre-registered show up and an army of volunteers take the child surfing, bodyboarding, or kayaking. (They even do Best Day events in the winter at different mountain resorts, where participants go snow tubing.) They start the day by doing an obstacle course built on the beach. With an emphasis on safety, each child is assigned a beach buddy to keep an eye on him or her. And every time a child goes into the water on one of the oversized surfboards, he or she has no fewer than six volunteers to get the child into a wave and arrive safely on the beach.

“I have been surfing for about six years,” said Henkes. “As I’ve told many of my friends and family, it has changed my life in so many positive ways. For many of the participants, Best Day is one of the few opportunities they have to go to the beach and experience activities like surfing and bodyboarding. Being a part of making that possible is one of the most rewarding things I have had the pleasure of doing. It is so totally touching and heartwarming to see the kids’ expressions of joy and the parents’ expressions of gratitude.”

The last decade has seen the formation of many groups that help people of all ages with special needs to connect with the ocean. Each surfing outreach group has its own techniques. There are two organizations that specifically focus on children with autism, as the feeling of riding a wave tends to make them open up to new experiences. Many parents who come out to Best Day events have children within the autism spectrum. The Autism Society claims that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, occurring in an estimated 1 in 88 births. The experience is now being studied by certain researchers. New Jersey is said to have higher autism rates than the national average, although some suggest that our educational system is just better at diagnosing it.

Saturday has 37 children signed up to surf. Every event fills up quickly.

“Any local families that didn’t get in should definitely come and check out what we do,” added Henkes. “They should also sign up for the waiting list on our website. All the remaining dates are full, but we do get cancellations.”

All the events are free thanks to sponsorships and grants from organizations and businesses, from Cliff Bar and Surf Tech to the Surfer’s Environmental Alliance and the Newman’s Own Foundation. Surf company Quiksilver donated new wetsuits this year.

But each day requires a massive amount of logistics. The last few weeks, the Best Day members have hit the Island looking for support.

“We spent two Saturdays putting up event flyers at surf shops, restaurants and stores,” Henkes explained. “And we got really great reactions from the individuals we spoke with. The residents of LBI seemed to be genuinely interested in what we do and were excited that we are bringing Best Day to LBI. We received many good-luck wishes, expressions of support, and even a few unexpected donations. It was such a positive vibe. We're feeling really good about our decision to expand to LBI.”

Bageleddi’s and Speakeasy Pizza, both in Ship Bottom, will be supplying breakfast and lunch for participants and volunteers. Barnegat Light Liquor Store donated 10 cases of water, while Andy’s Bait and Tackle made a $100 cash donation. The group is still looking for eateries to fill the remaining need.

“We were only asking to put up a flyer, so I was totally blown away by these generous offers. That’s the first time that happened while putting up flyers,” said Henkes.

Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol Captain Randy Townsend said his squad is always looking to get involved, and some guards will be volunteering. There are still volunteer slots available.

“The town was really receptive during the town hall meeting and very easy to deal with afterwards, during the approval process,” said Henkes, “We’re really excited about our first Best Day event on LBI and are looking forward to a long and successful relationship.”

The Best Day Foundation event in Harvey Cedars starts at 8 a.m.

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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