KAHALUU — Standing on the sand at Kahaluu Beach Park, Daniel Sproule was excited to get onto the water.
Sproule, 19, plays soccer, basketball and baseball with the Special Olympics in Canada, from where he and his family are visiting, but the chance to catch a wave as part of Saturday’s surf event hosted by Surf For Special Needs was a new one.
“I think when you see these kids get the opportunity, they relive that moment so many times,” said Sproule’s mother, Lynn Sproule, as they waited among the crowd that filled the north side of the beach on Saturday. “Like, I’ll probably hear about this for months if not years. That one moment lives on for them for a long, long time.”
Saturday’s event marked Surf For Special Needs’ fifth event since the organization kicked off with a surf day on Mother’s Day last year.
Aesha Shapiro, whose quest to teach her son Arrow to surf led to that first Mother’s Day surf day and the creation of the group, recalled her own experience of seeing her son, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, ride a surfboard for the very first time.
“When I saw him for the first time out on the board, I cried,” said Shapiro, who now runs outreach and fundraising for the organization. “That was Mother’s Day, and it was like the most amazing gift I could have ever had as a mom.”
Arrow’s name is also the inspiration for the organization’s tagline, “Follow our Arrow.”
Since that Mother’s Day surf day, the organization has held several events offering people with special needs as well as their families opportunities to all come together and spend some time in the water, whether on a paddleboard, surfboard or in a canoe. The organization’s next event, a historical canoe tour and paddle boarding at Kealakekua Bay, is scheduled for Saturday, May 18.
“Besides making memories together, it’s just overcoming obstacles,” said Tifani Stegehuis, general manager at Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors and vice president of Surf For Special Needs. “And just letting them know that the community is here and there for them and they’re not alone. We’re all ohana.”
Star Shortt, president and founder of the organization, estimated that three quarters of the roughly 40 kids registered that day had likely never been on a surfboard in the water. And without events like these, they might never have had the opportunity.
“A lot of these kids only get in the water when we do events,” he said. “Their families are from the mainland, they’re not comfortable with the ocean, and it’s scary with a special needs kid. So it’s just trying to be here to have something for these kids to do, something for them to look forward to.”
Additionally, he said, the event is also a chance for the parents of the kids to relax and trust that their kids are safe and in good hands.
“It’s cool to see (the kids’) happiness,” he said, “but it’s really the look on the parents’ face that do all the work for the kids.”
Surf For Special Needs also stands out by making sure to include the whole family in the activity, which Shapiro said is especially important for siblings.
“Siblings of special-needs kids, they endure a lot. They kind of take the second backseat to the needs of a special needs child,” she said. “There’s a lot of organizations that do stuff for just the special kid, but not the other kid. So we want inclusivity in everything we do. We want everybody to feel welcome, the whole family.”
Daniel Sproule’s brother, Caelan Sproule, said he too was looking forward to his first time on a surfboard, adding that he really appreciated the effort the organizers had put into the event.
“The fact that they’ll take time out of their life to help other people is just rad,” he said.
Stegehuis said it was important to make these opportunities available to the island’s visitors.
“It’s our kuleana and our honor to just, no matter where in the world they’re from, to be able to share the ocean, to share what we are so humbled to have here every day, and share aloha so that they can go back home and hopefully they all share that and spread it,” she said. “Everything starts with ohana and community, but we’ve got to extend that worldwide.”
And through events like this, Shortt said, families are getting together and seeing that they aren’t alone.
“They’re talking; they’re sharing their stories; they start to see ‘Wow.’ They feel like they’re not the only ones that’s going through this,” he said. “And what I saw at the paddling event was these families that didn’t know each other that come to these events? Now they’re buying Christmas presents and they’re hanging out. It’s like a bigger picture.”