Best Day EVER!

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The Best Day Foundation creates unforgettable experiences for children with special needs.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Everybody could use a “best buddy” and a fun day in the sun learning new skills, right? This perhaps holds even more true for young people with physical and mental challenges. That’s what Best Day Foundation — with a very active chapter in Ventura — is all about. The smiles (there have been over half a million of them) on the faces of both participants and volunteers are priceless, and the activities that are opened up to those with special needs are immensely fulfilling to every person who joins in.

Tandem surfer and water safety volunteer Sophie Elliott, 21, a Newbury Park paramedic, started volunteering when she was just 13 years old, thanks to her mom, Robin Elliott, a biologist at Amgen who helps out behind the scenes with planning and registration on event “Best Days”.

“Since I was young, I always loved seeing the impact on the kids and the families,” Elliott told me by phone. “I see them every summer and watching them grow up and the progress they have made over the past six to seven years is very cool.” She cited twin boys, both nonverbal, that she took tandem surfing. Years later, she sees them making attempts to socialize and notes the impact on the families: “So many parents never thought they’d see their kids surfing!”

Volunteers not only cheer on the participants, but also give parents a much-needed break from the rigors of parenting a special needs child or young adult.

“Our group of volunteers — many have been doing this a long time — are like family,” Elliott added. “We often see each other outside the event, surfing at C Street.”

Founded in Santa Cruz in 2008 by Brooks Lambert and Max Montgomery — and with the love spreading from Ventura to Florida (and even as far afield as Tanzania) — the Best Day Foundation supports children and young adults whose special needs and health challenges include autism, blindness, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy and other injuries, illnesses or developmental challenges. Ages 4-24 are welcome (most participants are in the 7-18 age range). The foundation enables these children and young adults to build confidence and self-esteem through adventure activities that stretch their limits, expand their true potential and reinforce their achievement. It also connects youth with diverse populations in their community.

Beach activities include tandem surfing, body boarding, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), outrigger canoeing and other activities. A typical Best Day (six events are held annually at C Street and in the Ventura Harbor) goes something like this:

Volunteers set up at 8 a.m. and hold an orientation. At 9 a.m. the participants show up for registration and are paired with their volunteer “Best Buddy.” Buddies may be high school students, Baby Boomers or anyone in between. They in turn escort each person throughout the day.

Then the real fun begins! Water crews take the kids out into the water and they spend two to three hours in the Pacific Ocean, partaking in water activities. If someone prefers to play in the sand, they do that, too.

Everybody has lunch together and “goody bags” with donations from local businesses, including Patagonia, are passed out. Spencer Makenzie’s has provided lunch for every event in Ventura since the organization was started over 10 years ago.

At day’s end, a “human tunnel” is formed to run through for “high five” hand slaps and to receive an award! Not surprisingly, there are many repeat customers, thanks to a very reasonable $30 registration fee. No one is turned away for lack of funds — scholarships are provided to subsidize the approximately $200 cost per person. There are no more than 45 participants for each event with anywhere from 80-100 volunteers, who work both in and out of the water.

In addition to the fun activities, Best Day provides back-end services, support, training and business resources to ensure that safe, self-sufficient programs are created. The overall strategy is to “empower communities across the country to offer special days at the beach to children with special needs.”

The Ventura Chapter (like all chapters) is completely volunteer run and always welcomes new “beach buddy” volunteers. Those with additional skills (fluent in American Sign Language or Spanish, for example) are also welcome.

The program is funded through donations, grants and sponsorships, but perhaps most importantly through the manpower from committed volunteers past and present, like Chipper “Bro” Bell, a former Patagonia employee and owner of Surf Class. He recruited Nancy Pederson in 2010 and she has been actively involved ever since, serving as a chapter co-chair and as a national board member.

“While I am not a surfer or part of the water teams, my strengths lie in general organization and leadership,” Pedersen explains. She credits the joy of working with other volunteers, as well as the kids and their families, with inspiring her to come back every year.

“So many facets of the community show up to make the events
happen . . . surfers, students, professionals, teachers… The list goes on!” she notes, adding, “Patagonia donates products for goody bags for the kids, Starbucks keeps us caffeinated, both local Trader Joe’s stores provide breakfast items and fruit and the Pepsi distribution facility has provided water. It really does take a village and it is great to see it all come together!”

Volunteers have contributed 38,999 hours, over 2,000 kids have been served and 59 events have been held to date. Wouldn’t you like to add to those numbers?