Imagine the thrill of being on a surfboard and having the waves take you on the ride of your life. Any surfer can relate to this exhilarating experience, but such a moment is life-changing for people with physical disabilities. On August 7, Neumann University DPT students witnessed this transformative event first-hand as volunteers with a program called Life Rolls On.
Life Rolls On (LRO) is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Jesse Billauer, a World Adaptive Surfing Champion who believed that adaptive surfing could “inspire infinite possibilities beyond any disability.” LRO hosts surfing events around the country using adaptive equipment and thousands of passionate volunteers who help to empower people living with paralysis to ride a wave – for the first time or reconnect with a sport they loved.
The surfers have a wide array of physical disabilities. Some have had strokes, cerebral palsy, and other ailments/injuries that have resulted in some degree of paralysis.
Dr. Tiffeny Atkins, professor of physical therapy, first introduced her third-year DPT students to LRO a few years ago. She has seen an increase in NU students willing to participate each year. Neumann alums also join her for this event, including NU alumna, Lauren Shipman, who has attended LRO as a surfer.
This year’s event took place on the Wildwood beach and Neumann was the only university that brought a team and sponsored the event. Thanks to help from marketing, admissions, and conferences and event planning, the volunteers had an NU tent, NU shirts, and giveaways.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be part of the team, and it’s a very emotional day. I am very impressed by the dedication this class has to service. An entire cohort of students (took) the trip, giving up the day and time. I believe that the students are doing it because it makes them feel good, and it’s a great opportunity,” Atkins explained.
DPT student Karly Wehrman attended the event for the first time. She had first-hand experience with paralysis through an experience that led her to seek a career in the PT field. When her brother was 16 years old, he was in an accident that left him paralyzed for six hours. She watched her brother rehabilitate and became fascinated with his progress and the therapists who worked with him.
Wehrman created rash guards (water-resistant tee shirts) with the NU logo for the LRO event for the DPT students to wear. She described the day as thrilling, emotional, and physically exhausting.
“We were all a little nervous at the start. It was a learning curve, but everyone was laughing and having a good time throughout the day,” she said. “The first run was the coolest. The smile on their faces was exhilarating. We were all cheering the whole time.”
Wehrman and her fellow students were assigned to different levels or areas to support the surfers. These include land, deep, middle, and shallow water stations. The volunteers form a tunnel in the water, and the participants ride through the tunnel on the surfboards.
Each surfer gets 30 minutes in the water and can go as many times as they wish. According to Wehrman, some choose to ride on their stomachs, and others stand up (with supports).
One particular surfer touched Wehrman’s heart. A young adult female, who had randomly been shot playing kickball and was paralyzed from the waist down, showed so much determination and enjoyed every minute of being in the water.
“We reached out and helped people get back into the water, and it touched us in ways we never expected,” Wehrman said. “On the ride home from volunteering, we couldn’t stop talking about the day and what we experienced.”