Story by: C/CPT Kayley Morimoto
Photos by: LTC (R) Timothy Schiller
White Plains Beach, Oahu’s South Shore, 4 November 2023, Service Learning Project with AccesSurf
23 Army JROTC Cadets with four staff members from Waialua High School and Mililani High School Army JROTC, celebrated AccesSurf’s 17th anniversary. AccesSurf is a non-profit organization on Oahu that was formed to eliminate the barrier of sand for everyone to have access to the beach and ocean.
In Hawaii, the beach is an integral part of local culture. The home of Surfing, with the great Duke Kahanamoku, “The Duke ”, five-time Olympic Swimming medalist, brought surfing to the world. With year-round warm weather, paddle-boarding, canoeing, and other water activities are common sights across the beaches in Hawaii. However, not everyone can simply go swimming. People in wheelchairs, people who have muscular atrophy, and people with chronic pain often cannot access the beach the same way others can. In 2006, beach-goers Mark Marble, Rich Julian, Kate Julian, and Amen Somal started the first-ever AccesSurf meeting. They’ve since grown into a prominent organization in the world of accessible sports. Cara Short, the Executive Director for AccesSurf, explains that the real purpose of this organization is to give everyone regardless of their impairments, to share the power of the ocean in healing, and just to make you feel good, and put a smile on your face. AccesSurf started this program 17 years ago at this beach, and it has expanded with numerous programs around the world.
Mililani Army JROTC learned about this Service Learning Project 12 years ago and coordinated with AccesSurf’s Executive Director. Mililani High School and Waialua High School came together to assist AccesSurf. Cadets are briefed about how to work with people with either a cognitive or physical impairment, that their lives “the participants” are more important, than just sitting at home, feeling hopeless, but that they too can enjoy the oceans of the world, with no limits.
AccesSurf aims to allow people with disabilities to experience water-based activities like swimming, surfing, body-boarding, and canoe paddling. Throughout the last decade and a half, AccesSurf has rapidly expanded its workforce, going from less than 50 volunteers to a grand total of 900 volunteers annually. Regular outings are held across Oahu at White Plains Beach, usually on the first Saturday of each month. The program also hosts on the third Wednesday of each month, Wounded Warrior Day at the beach, helping soldiers within the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit, cope with limitations both cognitively and physically.
In 2015, they helped organize the first-ever World Championships for Adaptive Surfing in La Jolla, California, as well as initiating the creation of the Hawaii team that would partake in the competition. In 2019, AccesSurf hosted its own Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships, which was the first stand-alone international Adaptive Surfing competition at Queens Surf Break in Waikiki.
The Mililani Army JROTC is run by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Timothy Schiller, and Army Instructor, First Sergeant Marlon Rice. Waialua Army Civilian Instructor (WACI) Mr. Roland Silva, plans on participating in four Service Learning projects throughout the rest of the 2023/24 School Year (SY) with AccesSurf.
“As someone who’s a new member of AccesSurf, I felt welcomed to their organization. Not only did I feel welcomed while participating, I got a new perspective while helping others,” said Battalion Commander C/LTC Alexia Cramer, who volunteered during the November outing on November 4. “I noticed how hard it is for people with disabilities to do something as simple as going to the beach and am now more grateful that today I was able to put a smile on a participant’s face, it just warms you up inside, knowing you’re making a difference in someone’s life.”
Cadets arrive at school at 5:30 a.m., to travel by bus getting to White Plains Beach by 7:00 am, and stay past the event’s ending at 1:30 p.m. to spend some free time at the beach. Days at the beach are largely held at White Plains Beach, because of the beach’s wheelchair accessibility and smaller waves. Mililani’s Army JROTC volunteers begin helping with set-up, as well as making breakfast for the participants and volunteers. After breakfast, they sign up for activity roles such as water transfers, which is when volunteers help participants get onto whatever piece of beach equipment is suitable for them, whether a regular surfboard or differently constructed wheelchairs that have beefy wheels and float in the ocean, called “Mobi’s”. Other roles include Assist-to-Swim and Water Safety, (helping surf instructors keep the participants safe.) At 11:15, participants and volunteers are provided with hamburgers, veggie burgers, and hot dogs, with chips and lemonade, which are for free, because of the tremendous sponsors to AccesSurf. Feeding over 300 people twice (breakfast/lunch) is not an easy task, but it is so well-organized and teamwork is where everything happens. No one ever leaves hungry.
“Working with Accessurf was an inspiring experience, fostering teamwork, resilience, and a profound sense of trust within the JROTC community, empowering individuals to overcome challenges and embrace the spirit of service and dedication,” said LET 1 Harmony Antoque. “One important piece of the Service Learning Project that the Senior Army Instructor, Lieutenant Colonel has done, is a written reflection, followed by video interviews that are recorded. Cadets are so touched by their experience, their emotions come out, giving a true feeling on how AccesSurf impacted them directly, as they reflect on the day, and how they made a difference in someone’s life”, said LET 4 Cadet Sergeant Major (SGM) Nyzel Fagaragan, Master Fitness Trainer.
Like many other groups doing such intensive work, AccesSurf has created a community of people who otherwise would never have met. Many of the volunteers from AccesSurf’s early years have continued working in the field, like original helper Jeff Hepfer, who now runs Swim Clinics. Current Operations Director Angela Atkins has been with AccessSurf since 2012 when she began volunteering as a college student.
“I’ve been volunteering for years, and a couple of things that are like the most special to me is I didn’t live here so when I moved out here I was a student at UH and when I went to AccesSurf’s events I was instantly included like I was family and over the years our participants, staff, volunteers, have become my family away from home, and so the community was really special to me and that’s what kinda keeps me coming back is like the smiles and the joy that we all get, it’s not just for the participants, but when we show and give we get much more in return and so that kind of had me coming back for many years,” said Atkins.
AccesSurf will have their next day at the beach on Jan. 6, 2024, and the Mililani Army JROTC will continue to volunteer for the rest of the year.