The Best Days of summer
Area special needs children hit the surf and sand with nonprofit foundation
By Chloe Vieira 06/21/2012
Early on a Saturday morning, a crowd of volunteers pours onto the beach to pitch tents, dig a giant hole in the sand for an obstacle course, and prop up dozens of surfboards, boogie boards and kayaks. Lifeguards and EMTs are on site with safety equipment, and volunteer surfers don their wetsuits. The crew awaits the arrival of 40 to 50 special-needs children. Some of the children have autism, are blind or have Down syndrome, but they’ve all come to the beach for the same reason: to have the best day ever.
The Best Day Foundation organizes beach days in Ventura where special needs children can spend a carefree afternoon trying water sports, often for the first time. The foundation was started in New Jersey in 2008 as an offshoot of Ride a Wave, another nonprofit that offers similar programs for children with disabilities.
Most of the kids come to the beach from the 805 and 818 areas, but others travel from as far away as Santa Cruz to participate. Best Day has a chapter in Orange County, and is pushing to start more chapters along the coast in San Diego and Santa Barbara to reach more families with special-needs children.
When the children arrive they get a beach buddy who sticks with them all day while they surf, boogie board, kayak, stand-up paddle and play in the sand.
“It builds self esteem, gets them out of their normal environment, where there’s usually a lot of stress. Parents get to see their kids stoked and happy. Everyone who goes has a great time,” said Monte “G” Crofts, surfer and co-chair of the Ventura chapter of Best Day.
Watching the children experience surfing is unforgettable for Crofts. Once, a nonverbal child said his first words to his mother as he came in from surfing at a Best Day event.
“Even if they can’t see, they can feel the elements around them. It keeps me going and it always blows my mind,” Crofts said.
A typical Best Day event draws more than 100 family members, nonprofit supporters and volunteers. The 3-to-1 ratio of volunteers to children lets parents relax in the sun together while their kids have the time of their lives.
Crofts said the children react drastically to surfing.
“Their faces change, their eyes light up after catching a wave,” he said.
The day concludes with lunch and an award ceremony where the children win prizes from Best Day sponsors. Previous sponsors include the Autism Society of Ventura County (ASVC), the Quicksilver Foundation and the Ventura Outrigger Canoe Club.
Joe Marquez, president of the ASVC, has two sons with autism who have been to Best Day beach events.
“It was literally one of the best days they’ve ever had,” he said. Marquez admitted he was nervous as he watched his 6-year-old son swim out with a lifeguard and a surfboard.
“As soon as he realized how much fun it was, he was very happy,” Marquez said.
A mother of a special needs child wrote a note of thanks to the Best Day volunteers on its website: “I just wanted to thank you all once again for all you do for these children and making their day so special. … If Christian could talk he would tell you himself how thankful he is to all of you.”
This summer, Best Day will hold beach days in Ventura at Surfers Point on June 23 and 24, and the South Jetty at Harbor Cove on July 14 and Aug. 19. Parents can learn more or reserve spots for their children at www.bestdayfoundation.org.