Near-death experience inspires special needs surf camp in Santa Cruz

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KGO) -- Children with special needs often get overlooked when it comes to certain kinds of activities and sporting events.

Santa Cruz resident and former competitive surfer, Danny Cortazzo, looked to change that.

A near-tragic event changed his life and helped him realize that he could Build a Better Bay Area with the help of others.

"Feb. 1, 1990, I was hit by a car, Cortazzo said. "It was a brutal accident that should've left me paralyzed, if not dead. That kind of put my life in perspective and made me realize how lucky I am. I realized that a lot of the things that I take for granted, a lot of others will never have the opportunity to try it."

That's where Ride-A-Wave was born.

Since 1998, lives have been changed ever since.

"Ride-A-Wave is one of the first adaptive surf programs in the country, if not the world," Cortazzo said. "We're 100% volunteer and I'm really proud of everyone that comes down here who devotes and dedicates their time to make sure that the participants have the time of their life."

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Volunteers from across the country come to Santa Cruz, Calif. to help children of varying needs enjoy a day in the ocean with activities such as surfing, boogie boarding and kayaking.

Some volunteers started when they were kids and now still come decades later.

It's a day no one wants to miss.

"It's just an all-inclusive day that gives people a chance, who wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity, to go out and do a lot of events that most children won't be able to do," Cortazzo said. "We break down barriers and allow them to enjoy these things."

You can't wipe the smiles off the faces of these happy campers as they participate in their favorite events.

This happiness goes double for the volunteers and others involved.

"It's the funnest thing in the world," 6-year volunteer, Drew Cunningham, said. "You get to come out here, surf on the beach and help these families. I find often that I leave the beach with a bigger smile than they do."

"I laugh so much that I start crying," Morgan Autism Center Executive Director Brad Boardman said. "Just to see them having fun on a boogie board or riding down the line on a wave while surfing is great. They just have a blast."

As much fun as the day is, it's also incredibly productive for these children.

Success stories range from participants overcoming their fear of the water in one day, to actually being able to speak words that they never have before.

"Some of the participants come and are non-verbal and they walk away saying 'surf'," Cortazzo said. "When a parent says 'this is the best day of my child's life', it's giant."

"It's been an opportunity for my son to overcome his fears," Sheryl Munoz Bergman said of her son who has been attending the camp for 10 years. "When he was younger, he had a lot of fears of everything. He's now been growing and overcoming that and Ride-A-Wave has been an important part of that process."

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Danny Cortazzo took a personal tragedy and turned it into a way to help others.

The hundreds of volunteers over the years took that and turned it into a life-changing experience and a way to make the Bay Area a better place.

"I feel that it's important to Build a Better Bay Area through Ride-A-Wave because it gets the community and people from around the nation to volunteer and realize what we can do is people through volunteering and helping others out. It's just an amazing gift that we're given. The participants realize that they can accomplish anything that they set their minds to. If they have the right people around them and the right support, we can do anything."

To learn more about Ride-A-Wave, how volunteer, or to find out when their next camp is, visit their website.

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