By Daniel Ritz
The smile never left Emma Hylton’s face as she approached the shore at Baby Beach, clutching her paddle.
For 11-year-old Hylton, who has a peritoneal dialysis catheter as well as feeding tube, this was her first time ever on the water. Previously, she has been kept out of the water by her medical needs; the equipment being unable to get wet.
Her life, as well as many others, was changed on July 13 thanks to the collaborative efforts of Dana Point’s Just Like Me Foundation (JLM) and the Adaptive Freedom Foundation (AFF).
Volunteers from both nonprofits assisted youth with special needs from across South Orange County in paddleboarding, even utilizing a unique watercraft called the Wheelchair Accessible Stand Up Paddleboard (WASUP) when needed.
The WASUP allows wheelchair-bound and immobile youth to safely take to the water, gaining the perspective of a stand-up paddleboarder thanks to catamaran-esque floats.
Amy Lagera is one of the founders of the AFF. She shared that, years ago, she was in a car accident that left her physically and emotionally damaged.
A life-long athlete, Lagera said that she became personally aware of the healing powers of the water and the impact it played in her physical recovery as well as mental well-being.
“I know, deeply, truly and personally, that the ocean can heal and I feel a call to pass that along,” Lagera said.
Minnie and Chris Hylton are Emma’s parents, and Chris manages www.ocspecialneeds.org, a website aiming to network parents in Orange County with special needs, encouraging support and highlighting events.
They were visibly overwhelmed with emotion when asked about their child’s first aquatic experience.
“She absolutely loved it, she wouldn’t let the volunteers take the paddle back,” Minnie said, fighting back tears. “She’s never done anything like this.”
This event was enabled by dozens of volunteers. JLM volunteers could be seen on the beach organizing logistics and keeping the youth safe while they waited their turn on the water. AFF volunteers assisted with in-water activates.