Hawai‘i Gives Back: Finding Peace and Waves with AccesSurf

For more than a decade, people have been able to found joy in the waves through the work and assistance of a dedicated group started by a recreational therapist and adaptive athlete.


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Photo: Jason Rose Photography, courtesy of AccesSurf



Being in the ocean means different things to different people. For some, it’s an escape from the daily grind. For others, it’s where they connect with nature. And for many, it’s a place of healing, both physically and mentally.


In 2006, recreational therapist Mark Marble realized that many of the people who needed this respite the most were the ones who had the hardest time actually getting into the water. He partnered with local adaptive athlete Rich Julian, who grew up surfing and is partially paralyzed because of a car accident when he was 14, and the duo got to work. It started simply, as many great things do: a small group of volunteers, a few pickup trucks and a mission—to support folks with disabilities and help them get into the water.


But that was then; AccesSurf has grown a lot since those early days. The nonprofit organization has evolved from a small motley crew at a handful of monthly events to a few hundred volunteers. But its mission hasn’t changed.


“We work with anyone with any disability,” says Cara Short, who started as a volunteer in 2008 before becoming AccesSurf’s executive director in 2012. “At our programs, you’ll meet all kinds of people; some have cognitive or psychosocial issues ranging from PTSD to autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. We work a lot with those who have physical disabilities as well: amputees, spinal cord injuries, strokes. We’ll invite pretty much anyone, no matter their age or financial background.”


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Photo: Tommy Pierucki, courtesy of AccesSurf



Why Surfing?

“Surfing itself is such a unique sport. It’s like no other and there’s something about the freedom and the peace of mind you get on a wave,” Short says. “For some of our participants, this is the only time that their thoughts are quiet, and it’s the only time that they are at peace with their mind and body. When you’re on the wave, all you can think about is being on the wave.”


Not only does surfing provide some tranquility, Short says it also gives people the comfort of inclusion. While they may surf differently, lying down or seated, they are—for a moment—riding the waves like everybody else.


AccesSurf is also committed to providing equal opportunities for folks who want to step up their games and take on the rough-and-tumble world of competitive surfing. In 2007, Hawai‘i’s first heat for people with disabilities—known as an adaptive heat—was held at the Duke’s OceanFest in Waikīkī. AccesSurf worked with the Hawai‘i Surfing Association to include adaptive surfing heats in most local competitions, with adaptive divisions on both O‘ahu and Maui. AccesSurf provides equipment and organizes training days for its own adaptive surfing team and, along with the International Surfing Association, has expanded into national and international competitions, bringing together adaptive surf teams from around the world.


“The vibe of the AccesSurfing community is incredible; they really want to share their stoke,” Short says. “Everyone is really excited to be together and talk story. But, I will say, when the horn blows to start a heat, it’s legit. They are very serious athletes when it comes to the competition.”


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Photo: Courtesy of AccesSurf/Tommy Pierucki



AccesSurf provides more than just opportunities to surf. From swimming programs to outrigger canoe paddling, the nonprofit’s aim is to get people into the water any way it can—with the help of a lot of volunteers.


“There’s something about the freedom and the peace of mind you get on a wave.”

–Cara Short


“At a usual event, like our Day at the Beach, we’ll have 150 to 200 volunteers, and we need them all because there is a lot to do,” says Short, who first volunteered after seeing a poster calling for help. Volunteers are split into groups, each with specific tasks such as monitoring the shoreline for participants having trouble getting out of the water or setting up and breaking down equipment. AccesSurf provides training for anybody who wants to get involved with the nonprofit, and new volunteers are immediately welcomed into the ‘ohana.


“For us, it’s about the community and inclusion. And what I think is really unique about our program is that, yes, we have volunteers to help us do what we need to do—because we really do need their help—but they are also as much a part of our family as our participants,” Short says. “Everyone is together, it’s very integrated and we’re all one big family.”


It’s easy to take for granted the kinds of freedoms that most people have. We drive ourselves to the beach, grab our longboards and jump into the water with ease. For others, the only time they’re in the water is when AccesSurf holds a Day at the Beach event. For them, waves aren’t just waves. They are a way to break free. And for the foreseeable future, the folks at AccesSurf—from the volunteers to the surfing aides and leaders like Short—will help them achieve that beautiful escape.


If you would like to get involved, visit AccesSurf at accessurf.org or call (808) 236-4200.