By KAREN KALUNIAN -- A nonprofit organization is giving those who have endured amputations a once in a lifetime chance to ride some waves. And hopefully give them more than just a good tan.
Sun, surfing and supporting amazing feats of courage is what AmpSurf New England is all about. This past Saturday morning on Second Beach in Middletown, you could not only hear the waves crashing on shore, but the cheers of the staff, volunteers and participants at AmpSurf's surfing clinic for the disabled.
The Association of Amputee Surfers - AmpSurf for short - is a non-profit volunteer organization that began in California 15 years ago and has since spread to the coasts of multiple New England states, including Maine, New Hampshire and, recently, Rhode Island. Their mission, in a literal sense, is to teach people with disabilities how to surf. However, the meaning behind the actual act is much more significant.
“Even though we use surfing as our vehicle for activity and getting people moving, it's really not about surfing,” said Steve Carbonier, Director for AmpSurf New England. “It's really more about getting them to focus on their abilities and not on what they can't do.”
AmpSurf conducts surfing sessions targeted towards solely veterans, known as VetSurfs, and sessions like the one held on Saturday, which was comprised of veterans, active duty service members and people of all ages living with a disability.
Mike Wallace of Narragansett was attending for his second year in a row.
"This is way out of my comfort zone but it's fun, safe and I feel exhilarated," he said. Mike lost his leg to diabetes and never thought he would ever be in the water, let alone surfing. You could see the pride in Mike's smile, not only for himself, but for the other participants, as he stood at the water's edge watching them surf in, some for the very first time. “Re-abled, not disabled,” he said.
Participants with all types of disabilities surfed however they felt comfortable, whether it was sitting, kneeling, laying down or standing. All of the action took place while under the watchful eyes of the dedicated volunteers who let participants know that anything is possible.
“It's an adaptive thing,” Carbonier said. “It's based on what their skill level is and we curb their instruction to what level they can handle.”
Although he lost his leg in 1975 in an industrial accident, 78-year-old Navy veteran Stew Stuart has never let that slow him down. In addition to teaching other amputees how to snowboard and three-track ski throughout the years, Stuart participated in his second AmpSurf event this past Saturday.
“I accomplished what I had set out to do and that was to be able to kneel on the board,” he said. “Hopefully next year I’ll be able to stand.”
The beach was full of folks watching as the participants took to the waves. Putting their fears aside, they trusted in themselves and their abilities while enjoying the surf. Positive reinforcement from the volunteers put them at ease too, as safety is paramount for those involved. Inspiration was everywhere, teamwork at the forefront of providing an unforgettable experience both on and off of the water that day. Everyone there felt a sense of pride, as evidenced by many shedding tears of happiness.
"We are sharing our passion," said Mike Tubridy, a volunteer who has been involved with AmpSurf for about four years.
That passion translates into real opportunities for growth and new perspective.
“We say it all the time, there is truly something to be said about the healing power of the ocean,” said Carbonier, calling the organization’s approach to helping amputees regain confidence in their abilities as “surf therapy.”
“It's cool to see various people go through a transformation on the beach right before your eyes,” Carbonier continued. “That person who shows up at the beginning of the day is not the same person who leaves at the end.”
For 15 years, AmpSurf's mission has been to “Promote, Inspire, Educate and Rehabilitate (PIER) people with disabilities” through experiencing the joy of surfing. They have provided surf clinics to hundreds of disabled veterans, adults and children who would otherwise likely never get to experience surfing.
If you or someone you know would like to get involved with AmpSurf or if you would like to donate to their cause, you can visit their website at www.ampsurf.org for more information.
With reports from Ethan Hartley