Surfing and Accessibility with AccesSurf

Cara Short discusses how AccesSurf brings the joy of the beach to anyone with a disability.

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Austin Hattox:
Today, we're going to be speaking with Cara Short, Executive Director of AccesSurf. Cara, welcome to the show.

Cara Short:
Thanks Austin. I'm pretty excited to be here.

Austin Hattox:
For those in our audience who aren't already familiar, could you talk a little about AccesSurf and what you guys do?

Cara Short:
Yeah, well, we're a program on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and we do programs for people with disabilities and their adaptive water sports programs. So basically what that means is providing beach access and then support for surfing, swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, whatever kind of water sports. I mean, not whatever kind of water sport, but a lot of different water sports. So we call it adaptive because it just basically means that we've had to modify things, whether it's the equipment or how the individual might surf or paddle or swim. So that's, in a nutshell, what we do.

Austin Hattox:

Yeah, that's fascinating. And I really love how fun your mission is. It's really unique. Where did the idea originate and how did you guys get started?

Cara Short:
Well, it started in 2006, a pretty simple concept. Mark Marble, who's one of our co founders, he's a recreational therapist and he'd been working with people post-injury to transition back into life. And his emphasis has always been on sports as therapy and what have you, because that's what his background is. And he was realizing that here we are living in Hawaii, surrounded by this beautiful beach and water, and he was not seeing people going to the ocean as part of their therapy or be transitioned back into their life.

Cara Short:
So he started asking around and basically the response was that there just wasn't any way. There wasn't a way to access the beach, meaning get across the sand and people needed support when they got into the water. And he had heard of some sort of similar type programs, but not specifically with surfing. So then he met an adaptive athlete named Rich Julian, and Rich is a local boy here who was injured, I think when he was 15 or 17. And he was a surfer prior to his injury. So they partnered together and worked with many rehab therapists and doctors and different people on the island, life guards and so on and so forth, and came up with AccesSurf.

Cara Short:
And it was born out of the fact that there was a need for it really. And just the simplest concept that people weren't getting to the beach and getting into the water. So, as I said, it started in 2006. Their very first day was a small day. They called it Day at the Beach, which is the name we use for our main program to this day. I think they had something like maybe five participants, with probably five or six volunteers. And needless to say, it just went like wildfire. It was an amazing experience for everybody. And it just blossomed after that. And more and more people got involved. And now we were just tallying up the amount of programs we did last year and individual program days, including special events. We did something like 60 program days last year. So from a small day at the beach with a few people, it's grown quite a bit in the last 13 years.

Austin Hattox:
What programs do you guys put on to accomplish this mission?

Cara Short:
So we have a few. And this is all of course, prior to our current situation. We are doing some restructuring to figure out what everyone's new normal looks like. So basically our two main monthly programs, one is called Day at the Beach, and that is the first Saturday of every month. They're all a lot of fun, obviously. I agree with you. I think our mission is a lot of fun too. I have to agree with you on that.

Cara Short:
So Day at the Beach is a day that anyone can come, any disability, any age, and their families. And we all meet at the beach. We set up what I call a little AccesSurf city. So we set up this whole area with beach mats and special beach chairs, like beach wheelchairs that can go on the sand and in the water. And then we have a ton of equipment that we use, like with specialized boards and pads and all these different things. A lot of duct tape. I always kind of make a joke about that, but it's true. We use a lot of duct tape, and basically we have a force of volunteers that will come out.

Cara Short:
So this is a crazy thing. Every month, we will have this program and we can see, I mean, on a small day, probably about 50 participants, but more regularly at 60, 70, 80 participants, depending on the time of year, and about 200 volunteers. So it's pretty incredible to see that kind of support. So we get together, and one thing I want to note about that is we have a swimming area and then we have a surfing area, which the majority of the people that come to Day at the Beach were tandem surfing with them. So we're actually on the surf board with the participants.

Cara Short:
But many people, they'll start a Day at the Beach and then they'll become more independent and learn more skills, and I'll talk about the clinics and different ways that people can do that in a minute. But what I want to say is, the interesting part is, what we've realized over the years, the big part about our Day at the Beach is really the getting together part. It's the community. We have people come that don't even get in the water, that for whatever reason that particular day, they might not be able to get in the water, or they just don't feel like it, but they still want to come because they're included. And our whole community is very, very focused on inclusion. So that's a lot of fun. We talk story, have a barbecue, it's just a fun day.

Cara Short:
And then the third Wednesday of every month, we have a much smaller program that's called Wounded Warrior Day at the Beach. And it's a mini version of what I just described to you. Here on Oahu specifically, too, we have many different military bases, so we work with a lot of the different rehab groups here, and they come out for a surfing day. It's a much smaller event, like I said, it's a little bit more like bigger surf lesson kind of style, where the majority of our participants do tend to have post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. We have all the equipment there for anyone that might have a physical injury, but we do tend to see with that particular program more traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury more often.

Cara Short:
And then we have quarterly clinics. So we do a swim, a surf, and now a six-man outrigger canoe program. And each of those are smaller than our Day at the Beach, actually even smaller than our Wounded Warrior. And those are like, I don't want to say next level, because some people might just go to the clinics, but it provides a different kind of an opportunity, where we can really work with the individual, with their comfort, with their skill.

Cara Short:
So, you come to Day at the Beach and it's beyond fun. It's just so, so much fun, so much excitement and tons of people. And it's really great. But if you're like, "Hey, I really want to be able to surf on my own," or what have you, well then we really recommend people come to our clinics so that we can really spend some time working with them individually. So we like to try to be able to provide several different opportunities for people.

Cara Short:
But in addition to that, we also do have a competitive adaptive surf team that competes locally and nationally and internationally. And we also ourselves host a rather large international adaptive surf competition annually in Waikiki. And last year I believe we had something like 85 surfers from 16 different countries. So we're kind of all over the place doing all kinds of stuff.

Austin Hattox:
That is so interesting. It seems like there's this whole ecosystem that just wasn't on my radar at all.

Cara Short:
Right. And I'll tell you, we're quite a force. And it's really interesting. The other thing that I think is also really, really a cool experience for me being part of AccesSurf is seeing how many people get involved, and you don't even have to be a surfer or even a person that likes to get into the water if you want to get involved. And I mean that from a participant standpoint, but also as a volunteer. That's what's been really cool is we have people come from all over the island, every background you could imagine, just because it's so much fun to be together and sharing and enjoying life.

Cara Short:
And the other side of it, the thing that we've really enjoyed watching grow out of this is the bringing more awareness for people with disabilities, which then just directly affects how our society is set up. We're not actively involved with advocacy as such, other than leading by example. And we've already noticed in these two years that things are starting to change. Like we're getting beach mats put in at certain beaches that can accommodate it, and things like that. I think that's making a really big difference. So we feel pretty happy to see that growth in our community.

Austin Hattox:
How do you guys make some of these activities and beach participation more accessible?

Cara Short:
So for us, a lot of the things that we do... Well, actually, that's a good question. There are several things. There's the physical side of things. So you get to the beach and of course the sand is somebody's greatest barrier if you're in a wheelchair. So we have these mats, they're quite heavy duty. They're like a woven nylon beach mats. So we put down a bunch of those, is our main thing, so people can get down onto the beach and access the water. Some people get into the water themselves, but we also have, like I said, this beach chair. It's called a Mobi-Chair and it can float and can go on the sand. So that's how we can help people get in and out of the water. And then of course, the equipment that we're using, it's a lot of modified and custom surf boards that have handles or special padding or different things like that.

Cara Short:
But then the other thing that we really focus on is our training and training our volunteers and our community about working with people with disabilities and communication and respect. That's a big part of how we really make things accessible by, I guess the word is teaching, but also I think we're providing some points, let's say, but really people are learning together by coming to our programs together and learning from each other. And I think that's been the biggest thing. People might not necessarily attribute that to accessibility. I do. I think that's direct.

Austin Hattox:
Right. Yeah. And I think on your website, you can tell the community aspect is pretty central to you guys because every single picture is, here's 80 people and it's a big group. There's a lot of participation.

Cara Short:
There is, there is. It's interesting. Like I said, that has grown over the years of course, but even right now, as you can imagine, we're looking at how do we restructure and do smaller groups and so on and so forth. And it's interesting because we actually need a lot of that support, but depending on the situation, we were kind of role playing one day, like, "Hey, what if we did this, this and this?" And we realized with certain people that we work with, it might take eight people to get them into the water or what have you. We have certain ways, what we call transfer people. Sometimes people will be laying on the surfboard and we all pick it up together and then carry them into the water. You might've seen some photos like that. So we need that force, all those people. There's a lot of muscle work involved, for sure.

Austin Hattox:
Following that line, to give our listeners a more personal sense of your impact, do you have any stories about individuals or families where you made an especially large difference?

Cara Short:
Yeah. I mean, to be quite honest, I feel like every single person has an amazing story, both participants and their family members and our volunteers. I think one of the more recent stories that kind of really stuck in mind was someone, his name is [Supasi 00:11:55] and he's this really wonderful man. And he came to our program because he had heard that we have a free lunch, which we do. We do a barbecue for the participants volunteers. He's on a fixed income and free lunch is a big deal. So he didn't really think he necessarily had an interest in the surfing part of it, let's say. So he came for the free lunch and it just blew his mind, the community and the comradery and the support and all of those things. It completely changed his life.

Cara Short:
So now, not only is he a regular participant, he's actually become one of our main volunteers. And he is to the point now where he's surfing on his own and getting his own equipment. So he went from thinking, first of all, that he wouldn't be able to get back into the water post his injury. He had a fall and has a spinal cord injury, but here he is now, from a free lunch to surfing on his own and being one of our lead ambassadors out in the community. So it's pretty exciting.

Austin Hattox:
Well, I can't blame him. Surfing is super fun.

Cara Short:
It is. Are you a surfer?

Austin Hattox:
Not really. I've gone two times and both times I spent about 95% of the time in the water.

Cara Short:
Yeah. Yeah. It's not a fun sport. Well, it's fun, it's not an easy sport to learn, I guess, is what I'm trying to say.

Austin Hattox:
Yeah. I was really surprised at how physical it was. It makes sense when you reflect on it, but the first time I did it, when I was done, I was like, "Man, that was a workout."

Cara Short:
Right. And I always say to people, you can be in amazing shape, if you're a runner or you go to the gym or what have you. But I guess it's like any sport, but anyway, I find surfing, there's nothing that can prepare you for surfing other than surfing. It's all the things, which is an interesting point directly related to AccesSurf, which I find... And Austin, I wish one day you could come here and see one of our events because it would blow your mind to see the people and what everyone is doing, and knowing, like what you just said, how physical it is. We're going out with all kinds of different function levels. I mean, like I said, we work with any disability, and not only the trust factor that they're trusting with our volunteers and our staff, but they're hardcore. We're going surfing. We're not in a little kiddie pool there. We're out in some real waves. I'm always amazed by that.

Austin Hattox:
Yeah. And I think that's one of the things also that drew me to you guys was like, it didn't seem like a sport that someone with some of these disabilities would be able to participate in. It's really fun, but it seems like there was just such difficulty involved, but seeing how you guys can enable people and empower people to do this, is really inspiring.

Cara Short:
Yeah. And the thing is, I think the next level too, is what we call our mentors, our athletes who've been with AccesSurf for a while and they're the ones that are charging and of course, independent surfing, but then they teach our new participants, our new people who are coming. We're meeting everyone where they're at. Not everybody's necessarily going to be charging out by themselves or what have you, but many certainly are. And I think it's from getting introduced at a program like ours to these individuals and being like, "Whoa, wait, I can do this."

Cara Short:
And then everyone shares their info and they're like, "Hey, have you tried this or that with equipment?" That's a big thing. And then just different ways to get in and out of the water, because AccesSurf isn't every day. So people still have to figure out how to get in and out of the water. And I like how everyone has really come together to help each other.

Cara Short:
I think that's also an interesting thing with surfing. I think the culture of surfing really lends to such a success for our program, because I think that it's just something in surfers in general, or just people who are really loving being at the beach and the ocean and what that feeling is like, I think that's a big part of it too.

Austin Hattox:
I could absolutely see how that would feed into some of the larger idea of this whole program, this whole mission statement. And on that note, how do you guys get the word out about AccesSurf to volunteers or program participants or donors?

Cara Short:
Well, a lot of it's word of mouth, of course, especially here on the island. I mean, there are a lot of people on the island, but it's still an island. So definitely a lot of word of mouth. And over the years, social media actually has been a big resource for us, especially for volunteers. So I noticed a few years ago when we started to put some energy towards our social media, our volunteer attendance exploded. So that has been wonderful.

Cara Short:
But we also do as much as we can as far as outreach. So we do certainly do a lot of speaking engagements and go to schools and rehab hospitals when we can and expos and that kind of thing. So we try to make as many of those events as we can. And we find that that's been very, very helpful, because we can really connect with people at those events and really kind of go through the details. Because obviously, somebody is going to have a lot of questions and maybe a lot of apprehension and nervousness. So it's really nice when we have that opportunity, where we can one-on-one share with people. So we just try to get out in the community as much as we can.

Cara Short:
And we're also very fortunate that the local media has been very kind to us as well, but I think a lot of it is, like you said, the pictures and the videos. I mean, it's easy to see in a picture. I feel like we're able to tell our story quite easily in a picture. So I think that we've been fortunate to get some pretty good exposure in our community. And then now I've noticed that we're getting more national, international attention as well.

Cara Short:
And I think also the other thing is, this kind of a program, although we are one of the pioneers, it's certainly starting to grow around the world. And I think as that happens, people are looking for other organizations like us and then finding us by internet searches and then contacting us to get some more information. So I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but up until now, we would have people travel here specifically just to come to an AccesSurf event. So that's been pretty cool. I think a lot of people just find us on Google search now, I think is a big thing too. People are looking for things to do, because adaptive adventures is becoming so commonplace now.

Austin Hattox:
Then you might've answered this already in your previous statement, but how do you guys utilize social media and how does that fit into the bigger picture of AccesSurf?

Cara Short:
It's been a big driving force for us, for sure. It's a way that we can really connect with our community. It's a way that we can reach beyond our community. So, of course, like we were saying, the pictures and the videos, they're so fun to share. They're beautiful pictures and the smiles and you can see the joy. So I think that we have been very fortunate with that. So we definitely have a pretty good following with social media and people want to share about it. So I think it has been pivotal for us, to be quite honest, with our program growth, but also our exposure for potential support. Like you said, like donors or businesses that might want to support us. I think the fact that we have a pretty good platform on social media, that's been a big draw for a lot of people.

Cara Short:
And certainly when I do meet with people that want to partner with us, when I can share the level of engagement that we have in those mediums, that I get a very good response. And, I don't know if you're probably going to ask me, but during this time, when we're not able to run programs, it's been essential to connect with our community, because one of the things about our programs isn't just the sports side of it. It's the community and the support that we give each other. So when things went into "shutdown", our biggest concern was making sure that our community was okay. A lot of people, we're their main interaction, we're their main socialization and that kind of thing.

Cara Short:
So through social media and email and personal phone calls as well, but with social media, we're able to reach more people and say, "Hey, let us know if you need help, what we can do?" And then we're able to do some kind of interactive campaigns to keep people moving at home and things like that. So, I guess that was a long answer to your question, but basically, social media really helps us keep connected with our community, I think, is what I'm trying to say.

Austin Hattox:
And what platforms do you guys rely on?

Cara Short:
We just use Instagram and Facebook.

Austin Hattox:
Okay. Yeah. I could see Instagram especially, but also Facebook, how that could be a good central repository for showing off pictures and staying in contact with people.

Cara Short:
Well, I think the thing is because we work with so many different demographics, and I don't know much about social media myself, but I know that there's certain different age brackets and what have you that tend to go for more one than the other. So that's why we've been consistent with both Facebook and Instagram to try to reach as many of our people as we can.

Cara Short:
I think we had a Twitter account for a minute, but that didn't really seem to be something that we needed to keep up with, and we've got enough going on. Because we're actually a small group. We do a lot, but we're small. We have a very, very small staff and we're pretty much volunteer run, so got to figure out what works best for us, and then just focus on that.

Austin Hattox:
Right. So shifting gears a little bit, what's one tech tool or website your organization has started using in the past year?

Cara Short:
Well, we've been using GoToMeeting, is actually what we've been using. That's been our main thing really that we've been doing. And actually, as we're talking, you and I right now, one of our staff is on a virtual call with some of our participants. We've been doing weekly call ins, because like I said, people are feeling very isolated not being able to come to our programs. So that's been the main thing for us, is keeping connected.

Austin Hattox:
That's super cool. So is there a reason why you guys went with GoToMeeting versus Zoom or some other platform?

Cara Short:
Yeah, we tried several of them and it's just seemed to be the one. We are all working from our prospective homes and it seemed to be the one that whenever we did a trial run, we were all able to have a good connection with, and it seemed easy to use. That was just the one that we ended up selecting.

Cara Short:
I think at first, of course, and this is just a lay person talking here, but first I think we were nervous about the Zoom stuff with the people that were crashing in on some of the bigger meetings that we had heard about. We had had some friends had that happen to, so we thought we'd go with a different platform. But I think that that's changed now. I think they've got some things in place. We just trial and error and that just seemed to be the one that seemed best suited for us.

Austin Hattox:
Are you battling with any tech issues right now?

Cara Short:
Not at this exact moment. What we are looking to do, and I'm not sure if this is along the lines of what you're looking for or [inaudible 00:22:16] for an answer, but we're looking to move to more digital type stuff, meaning more online trainings, more online interactions, that kind of stuff. So we are looking at, is our website the right website for us? All the things that's involved with that, do we have the right things in place to put more emphasis on more in that virtual type world? So that's the thing that we're looking at right now.

Cara Short:
Because we realized that even once we are able to start in-person programs, having this connection, but also this time made us realize that there's a lot more we could be doing with resources instead of just in-person events. Yeah. We're looking at doing quite a few things. And videos, a lot of different videos and things like that. So we've got someone that we're bringing on, a volunteer actually, who that's going to be her main role, is helping us develop those kinds of things for us, like our training videos and promotional videos, and then a great way to YouTube or different things. And like I said, making sure that our website is the right one. So we're right in the middle of trying to figure that out right now actually.

Austin Hattox:
That's an excellent transition into my next set of questions. So what role do you see your website playing within the AccesSurf world?

Cara Short:
Over the last couple of years, I would say, it's definitely been the hub for sure, but I see that elevating even more so now. By that, I mean, I think that what we're realizing is we need to put more effort into making sure that our content is always updated and that our information is easy to find. And we've done a pretty good job with that, but I think that's one of those boxes that we'd like to check with a bigger check mark. So we're going to put some work into our website. I think it's going to be pivotal for our organization.

Cara Short:

Well, first of all, it's how people usually find us, but also with things changing constantly during these times, that's where everyone's going to go to find out what we're up to. So it's going to be a big role, for sure.

Austin Hattox:
And you've touched on this a little bit, but what sort of virtual trainings would you offer? What does that look like?

Cara Short:
Well, there's a couple of different ways we see us doing this. We probably would do a couple where we would do like a Zoom type call, but GoToMeetings where we'd have people join us, where we'd be doing the training and people could call in. And basically there's a few different things. One would be for volunteers. So we have a lot of training that we do with our volunteers and a lot of different levels. So we're actually working on doing some of more of our introductory training for our new volunteers.

Cara Short:
And then we will probably also have a video series that we will have on the website. So let's say you are a new volunteer and you're going to come for the first time. We'll have you make sure that you watch videos one, two and three or whatever it is, before you actually come to an event.

Cara Short:
Because as it is right now or has been, we do all the training on site, which is great, but it's a lot, it's almost too much for the first day. So we are finding that it would be probably better use of our resources and time to have some background knowledge before they attend. And, that way people can do it on their own time.

Cara Short:
So volunteer training, and then we also see us being able to work with our athletes a little bit more, like doing some at-home exercises specific to surfing or different water sports, and then also providing platforms for our mentors to give some clinical training as such, as far as, I mean clinics like as in techniques and understanding waves. So that kind of training. So volunteers, but then also for our athletes as well.

Cara Short:
I think that there's a lot of room. So we're looking at doing just straight up videos that you would download and watch, but then also some that you could actually join in, and we can answer questions and so on and so forth. And actually, we've already done a few things with Instagram Live, where we were having different exercise days and things where people could comment and we could adjust accordingly. Because we want to really always make sure we're accommodating as many people as we can. So we have a lot of different things that we've had to adapt to make sure that we're accommodating everybody.

Austin Hattox:
And I guess, trying to move everything online, that's the answer to my next question, which is, how has coronavirus impacted your normal operations?

Cara Short:
Well, completely. I mean, we've pretty much as far as programs, have been shut down since the pandemic. Because all of our stuff to date had been very much in person. It's in person, it's large groups, and it's lots of touching, like a lot of hands on support. So we're all the things that you're not supposed to be. So right away, of course, not only was everything shut down here locally, but our concern for the public health has obviously been number one.

Cara Short:
So now, as things are opening, we're still not at a position to open up our in-person programs. We are working towards that and we are restructuring some things, but we have gone to a hundred percent online or meaning, like I said, some virtual phone calls that where people can communicate, but then also just fun, interactive things on social media that has helped keep people engaged and active. But also focusing on water sports kind of thing. So breathing exercises specifically for how to hold your breath when you get pummeled by a wave, things like that.

Cara Short:
So coronavirus affected us a lot. It basically shut down our programs for the time being. And then as far as us behind the scenes, it's actually created more work for us, which you wouldn't think that would be the case, but we've just been in the trenches trying to figure out how to restructure and to relaunch programs in a safe manner, and that's been very challenging.

Austin Hattox:
With all this transformation currently going on, where do you see AccesSurf in five years?

Cara Short:
Well, without having the crystal ball, it could go one of two ways, of course, but hopefully we as a society will get past the pandemic and we can be able to engage on some of the level we were before. We are based on Oahu, and this is actually the only place that we've run regular programs, but we've always had a longterm goal to reach our neighbor islands and be able to run some programs and the neighbor islands. So that is still our goal. We just need to see what our new world looks like.

Cara Short:
But one thing we have been really putting some emphasis to accommodate is to downsize the size of our programs. So work more individually with people to try to mitigate some of those public health concerns. So, depending on where things go with the health climate, we may end up just putting more and more energy into that, which would be great too. We're still serving lots of people, but it's a little hard to say right now exactly where it would be in five years, but ideally in the neighbor islands and on Oahu is our dream.

Austin Hattox:
So if you could go back in time before you got involved with AccesSurf, what would you tell yourself?

Cara Short:
Well, my personal story is I started as a volunteer probably about 10 years ago, and was one of those gung-ho volunteers that wanted to help more and more, which I did. And there's quite a story behind it, but then I ended up in this position as Executive Director. But at that time, it was a fancy title for the fact that I was the one staff. It was one of those things.

Cara Short:
So the mission is my greatest passion and it has been my driving force for my life. It's changed my life. But, to answer it quite honestly, I think what I would tell myself is if there's any way to make sure you have more balance, because when you're in a position such as I am with a smaller organization, actually it's probably be all the same with all executive directors for nonprofits, I would assume actually, it's hard to balance. It's hard to balance a personal life with feeling so passionate about the mission of the organization that you're working for. So that's been a struggle.

Cara Short:
So the previous self could have been like, "Hey, make sure." Because I think now, once you're in the thick of it, it is harder to kind of say, "Okay, I've got to slow down, I can't work this many hours. I've got to make sure I take care of myself." Where, if maybe all along, I had implemented that as a more of a priority, it would probably be easier at this point.

Austin Hattox:
If our listeners would like to find out more about AccesSurf, where would be the best place to find you guys online?

Cara Short:
So our website is accessurf.org, and AccesSurf is one word with just two S's. So that's how you would find us. And then of course our Instagram is accessurf_hawaii, and Facebook I believe is just AccesSurf. 
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