'It's priceless': Life Rolls On helping people living with disabilities hit the waves
A non-profit event that helps people living with disabilities hit the waves has arrived at Nova Scotia’s Martinique Beach.
The beach along the Atlantic coast is the only Canadian stop for Life Rolls On. If it wasn’t for founder Jesse Billauer, none of it would be possible.
"The ocean is just a healing place,” said Billauer. “It doesn't really care who you are. It will beat you up or it will treat you beautifully."
Billauer knows the unpredictability of the ocean as well as anyone. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was a 16-year-old aspiring professional surfer.
One day he was doing what he loved most when his life changed forever.
"Right before my 17th birthday, I went surfing. Pulled inside of this barrel and when I came out, the wave crashed down right on my back and I went head first into the water. I ended up breaking the six vertebrae in my neck. Luckily my friends were there or I would have drowned."
Billauer says he didn’t realize the severity of his injuries until meeting with a doctor.
“The doctor told me I probably wouldn't walk again,” he said. “That moment just kind of just stopped my life and I didn't really know what I was going to do."
Billauer says doctors told him he'd never surf again, but he didn't listen. It took him about a year to figure out how he would get back on a board.
"I always knew I wanted to get back in the water and surf, I just didn't know how because nobody was really doing it before, and once we figured it out I went in the water and it just clicked,” said Billauer. “Something where I can get a lot of freedom and independence and joy, and that's why I started the foundation to give it back to other people."
Billauer started Life Rolls On in 2002, and the organization's Get On Board tour has made hundreds of stops over the past 14 years.
"That was amazing,” said participant Casey Perrin. “I was a little nervous at first, but I just like the big waves."
This is the second year Life Rolls On has visited Martinique Beach, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. This year’s event has about 40 participants, including 14 Syrian newcomers.
"I can only imagine what they've gone through to get to this point today,” said Billauer. “Just to see the smiles on their face as they’re riding these waves, that's what it's all about.”
“It doesn't matter where you’re from or what kind of disability you have or what race or colour or whatever, it's all about just the pure love and stoke of the ocean, and getting that independence, getting that freedom."
There are also about 150 volunteers, which Billauer says make the event go smoothly.
"To have all these volunteers drive an hour just to come help says a lot about the community up here,” said Billauer. “They're just excited to be a part of it and we're very thankful."
Nina Nedic has volunteered at the event for both its years. She says the event has been one of the biggest highs of her life.
“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “I personally love to surf, so to be able to share my passion with people who need a little more help to be able to do it safely, it's been a very rewarding experience."
Surfable president Luke Godin says if he has his way, there will be more surfing events held for disabled people in Nova Scotia.
"Our vision as a group is to make surfing in Nova Scotia generally more accessible, so we'd like to make our beaches accessible, we'd like to have people able to use boards and have the right volunteers around on different weekends so if you want to go surfing on any weekend in the summer, we can do it," said Godin.
Jason Everett first participated in Get On Board in 2014. He says he couldn't contain his excitement when he heard it was returning this summer.
"They had the sign-up list and I'd signed up within 30 minutes of it being out, so I was super stoked," said Everett.
"Any time you can get out of your wheelchair and forget about it, whether it's for 15 minutes or a half hour, it's priceless.”
With files from CTV Atlantic’s Allan April.