WORDS by Leticia Nguyen IMAGES courtesy of The Ocean Healing Group

In 2006, while filming a skateboarding video in Santa Cruz, professional skater and surfer Christiaan “Otter” Bailey sustained an injury in which he crushed several vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord, which consequently left him paralysed from the waist down. This life-changing incident undoubtedly presented a myriad of challenges for Christiaan, but he never allowed his disability stop him from doing the things he has always loved—surfing and skating.

It was only one year after his injury that Christiaan and co-founder, Frank Bauer, established the Ocean Healing Group (OHG), which is a non-profit organisation that offers recreational activities to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities. Many people are aware of the therapeutic benefits that the ocean provides, which is why the OHG is such a fitting name to this organisation that uses the ocean as a backdrop to the healing they provide to its participants. “What inspired Frank and I was the fact that we both love surfing and the adventure and we wanted to share that stoke with kids who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise!”

“Moments when a camper conquers a fear or achieves something major for themselves, those little moments are always burned into our memories.”

The concept behind the OHG seems relatively straight forward—making outdoor recreational programs accessible to everyone should be a piece o’ cake, right? However, Christiaan says the list of challenges they faced “ran out the door and around the corner”. “It’s one thing organising a surf camp, but when you take into account bringing disabled kids to an exotic location to participate in ‘extreme’ sports, it adds a massive amount of logistical concerns that need to be addressed”. “Between organising the camper’s medical needs, adaptive equipment, travel itineraries and especially trained volunteers, it definitely requires a unique skill set and diverse background to ensure things run smoothly, Frank and I just happened to have it. We make a great team and with the help of our phenomenal group of volunteers, these kids get to benefit from it”. Challenges aside, both Christiaan and Frank knew that the hard yards would be worth it in the end.

Since its inception in 2007, the OHG has taken hundreds of young kids and adults under its wings and provided them with an array of experiences they may not otherwise had access to. The OHG primarily evolves around adaptive surfing, but they also offer zipline tours, horseback riding, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing and quad jungle tours. The OHG’s slogan, ‘helping kids carve the dis out of disability’ is not only catchy, but clearly states their mission to destigmatise disabilities and the general perception that wheelchairs should serve as an obstacle in people’s lives. Registered in Colorado, but based on the beach in Costa Rica, the OHG has delivers outdoor adventures for wheelchair-bound youngsters and their families.

While there are many other equally noteworthy organisations in the world that offer one-day recreational programs to people with disabilities, the OHG is the only one that offers an program that runs over 8-10 consecutive days, which allows participants to fully immerse themselves in the activities and the stunning location. This program known as the ‘Just Add Water Surf program (JAWS), runs 8-10 camps out of the Shaka Beach retreat in Costa Rica. “The Jaws program is an expensive one to run, but we’ve been blessed with some incredibly dedicated donors who are stoked on what we do and have been willing to support us in our mission to help these kids”.

This year they will be sponsoring two young lads from Warrnambool, Victoria, to take part in this incredible opportunity. The two lads got into contact with the OHG via mutual Facebook friends. “It was just one of those situations where Facebook really paid off for them”. “They’re friends with my teammate, Aaron Fotheringham, and had posted how stoked they were about chair skating and adaptive surfing, so after some investigation and talking with their families, plans were set in motion to sponsor them to come out to California. First, they’ll chair skate with Aaron and I and afterwards, head down to Costa Rica with us for our JAWS program!” It’s pretty inspirational that Christiaan has turned his adversity around and is now changing lives through his personal experience. He says that his injury has made him a better person, as it prompted him to help others conquer their physical boundaries. With the ability to offer an experience of a lifetime and truly enrich the lives of its participants, it’s easy to imagine how rewarding his job must be. “Moments when a camper conquers a fear or achieves something major for themselves, those little moments are always burned into our memories. To be honest, the change in perspective is just as impactful on the parents as it is on the kids. They learn how important it is to allow their kids the freedom to explore the world and push the limits for THEMSELVES! It’s this change in perspective that will end up empowering their kids in the future and is one of the most critical lessons we can help instill in the parents over the course of the trip” The rewarding nature of their work is what motivates the OHG to strive even harder and continue to set goals for the future, but it needs continued support from donations and volunteers. “Whether donating personally in time or money, we always welcome to new ideas and fundraising possibilities. All people have to do is reach out to us, no offer of support is ever turned down”. For more information and how to get involved, visit www.oceanhealinggroup.org