Kaua’i Ocean Recreation Experience (KORE) ambassador Lisa Insalata helps people with disabilities, including first-time participant Doug Schwiesow from Alaska (pictured here) ride the waves at Hanalei’s Black Pot Beach each month
Lisa Insalata and other KORE volunteers help people with disabilities learn to surf at Hanalei’s Black Pot Beach
Kaua’i Ocean Recreation Experience ambassador Lisa Insalata says it stirs her soul to see Kaua’i residents and visitors with disabilities riding waves.
Providing an opportunity they might not otherwise have, she is part of a group of volunteers who help individuals with disabilities such as traumatic brain injury or multiple sclerosis catch waves at Hanalei Black Pot Beach each month.
“The ocean provides such therapeutic and medicinal benefits, and for me to share that with others is one of the biggest gifts of all,” Insalata says.
Surfing allows people to see what they are really capable of doing, says stroke survivor Sharon Pancho.
“We’re not handicapped, we’re handicapable,” she says one morning while gearing up to get in the water at February’s KORE event. “This really pushes you to see what you’re capable of doing.”
Recreational water activity builds self-esteem and self-worth, adds Pancho, who was able to surf for the first time in
August 2009 when the organization launched its service.
“They treat you like a person and you forget that you’re physically challenged,” she says.
The volunteers – surfers, medical personnel, lifeguards, firefighters and lovers of the sea – could be doing anything else, but “they give up their time for us,” she says. “Lisa is an especially great encourager. I love her. She’s fun and makes us laugh.”
The nonprofit welcomes not only kamaaina like Pancho to participate, but visitors as well.
In fact, first-time participant Doug Schwiesow from Alaska says he was excited to be a part of February’s gathering.
“I feel pretty warm and fuzzy,” says Schwiesow – who is paralyzed from the neck down – after being assisted out of the water.
Schwiesow found it remarkable to see the many people participating and volunteering despite the gloomy weather that day.
Rain or shine, the dedicated volunteers of KORE are there to lend a helping hand to those in need, says Insalata, who is originally from Southern California and moved to Kaua’i in 2001 to be closer to the ocean.
She says the motivation she receives when participants show up is enough to bring tears to her eyes as she recounts her first experience with the organization.
“I woke up that day feeling very sluggish and a little down and out,” says the avid amateur surfer. “I put a surfboard on the car dragged myself to the beach and was going to do a wave check.”
What she discovered instead was a group of people at Black Pot Beach Park helping those with disabilities get in the ocean – some for the first time in their lives.
“The faces of the participants were ecstatic,” says Insalata, who dances with the Papa Laua’e O Makana hula halau. “They were riding waves – some tandem, some on their bellies, some actually standing up. I was so deeply moved that I started to cry. I thought, ‘This is so where I want to be spending time.'”
Since then Insalata, a licensed massage therapist, has taken an extra voluntary step by offering one-on-one recreational ocean experiences to those with disabilities.
“The water gives people with disabilities an opportunity to move in a way that they can’t on land,” she says. “It’s great for their muscle strength and joint flexibility. It gives them the support of the water. And not only does it have all those physical benefits, it increases their confidence too. Like any new recreational activity, it fosters independence.”
Insalata has received water-safety instruction, training in ocean rescue and certification in adaptive aquatics.
“I’m not looking to be financially successful with this. But it brings me so much joy that that is success in itself,” she says, adding that there really is nothing comparable to witnessing someone who has suffered so much in his or her life glide across the sea with ease.
One recent participant is a young man from Hanapepe who had lost three limbs in a train accident. He was actually able to surf with the assistance of dedicated KORE volunteers.
“Talk about being moved by somebody,” she says. “It’s a toss up who gets more out of it, the participants or the volunteers. If I had three limbs severed I don’t know if I could have a smile on my face like this young man did.”
What also touches her heart are the volunteers.
“I wouldn’t assume or think that they would have an affinity for working with people who have disabilities. But then I see that side come out of them, it’s really special. A lot of people have a gift and it’s touching to see them work with disadvantaged people,” says Insalata, who always dreamed of living in a place where she could get in the water most days of the year. “This is transformative for a lot of people.”
Anyone can participate in or volunteer at KORE’s monthly gatherings.
“KORE is for everybody and anybody who needs assistance getting back into the water to surf or just to relax and float on a board,” says North Shore firefighter Kurt Leong. “We try to accommodate everyone’s different needs in the water; it doesn’t necessarily have to be about surfing. Hanging at the beach with family is priceless.”
And volunteers like Insalata also are priceless, says Leong, who was an integral part of the formation of KORE, which is supported by the YMCA.
Giving back to the community by volunteering is a way to share one’s gifts with others, says Insalata, a Princeville resident. “The sea has given me countless blessings, and if I can help others benefit in even small ways like having fun riding the tiny waves at Black Pot Beach or just floating on their back in that gorgeous salty water, that is a blessing returned.”
And while she has traveled the world and crewed on sailboats from the Marquesas to the Society Islands, there is nothing quite like riding a wave, Insalata says.
“I understand a surfer’s addiction because you just can’t get enough of it. So if we can help others get some semblance of that thrilling feeling, we’ve done a good job.”
Visit korekauai.com for more information.