The smile on Rod "Bronco" Matsuura’s face stretched from nearly one end of White Plains Beach to the other yesterday as he was helped out of the water after his bodysurfing session.
Sarah Swartz had just as big a grin as she ran onto the beach to tell her dad about the wave she had just caught.
Matsuura, 49, the former executive chef at Parker Ranch Grill on the Big Island, was mostly paralyzed and his speech severely limited by a stroke six years ago.
Swartz, 7, was born with birth defects that have caused her a multitude of serious problems and required 11 surgeries.
What brings them and scores of others with a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities together the first Saturday of each month is the "Day at the Beach" program.
It’s the centerpiece project of AccessSurf, a nonprofit started by certified therapeutic recreation specialist Mark Marble as a way to provide a stress-free day at the beach for those with limited physical or neurological abilities.
AccessSurf and Day at the Beach mark their fourth anniversary next month.
"There’s no one type of disability being served," Marble said of the program, which provides all necessary equipment. "We’re open for anyone that has a physical or cognitive impairment — and no age limit. If you’re 83 years old and have a desire to get into the water with your family and just need the right tools, then we’re here to assist you with that."
A one-time recreational therapist at Shriners Hospital for Children and the Rehabilitation Center of the Pacific, Marble, 45, said, "I wanted to network some of my patients and families back into the recreation and leisure sports they used to do."
Finding no ocean therapeutic programs in Hawaii, Marble scraped around for funding and started AccessSurf in 2006. A year later, he became its full-time chief executive, president and only full-time employee.
With no lack of participants or volunteers, including a team devoted just to organizing each month’s lunch, Marble has a long-term dream of creating a permanent home for the growing organization.
Each participant goes into the ocean with a surfing instructor and two spotters. There are also water safety personnel lining the beach for additional backup.
Nuuanu resident Katie Yoshioka said her 24-year-old son, Bennett, who has cerebral palsy, wouldn’t be able to surf without the help.
"You need a really strong, professional person to accompany him, and (the instructors) go through an intensive training. Safety is their main issue."
Schofield Barracks resident Kara Swartz and husband Richard have been bringing Sarah and her sister Hannah, 9, to Day at the Beach for a year and a half. At first, she said, the kids were a little shy.
"They used to not like getting their face wet," Swartz said. Now, she said, both want to get their own surfboards and surf independently of the program.
"The surfing builds up their self-esteem and their confidence," she said. "They’re not as scared or as timid anymore."
Dennis Okada, 66, who became paraplegic as a result of a scuba accident in 1986, said he refused to go into the water for 19 years but then his doctor "tricked" him into going to the beach.
"I got in the water and it was almost like an epiphany," he said. "There’s something about the water, there’s a sense of freedom, a sense of well-being."
A former airplane mechanic, Okada encourages others with disabilities to participate.
He said he enjoys "the sun, the water, and being around people who are so caring," adding, "They’re not here because they want to put on a show. They’re here because they want to help you. It’s a great feeling."
Volunteer and ‘Iolani School junior Zalman Bernstein described himself as a beach rat who would be in the ocean on any given Saturday anyway. Bernstein, 16, has since persuaded some fellow Raiders water polo players to volunteer.
"And as much as this is supposed to be like community service, this does not feel like work at all," he said. "I honestly look forward to coming here every month."