Sharon Pancho never learned to swim. Yet on a Saturday morning eight years ago, she flung her petite frame onto the deck of a surfboard and paddled into Hanalei Bay. A small group of Kauai watermen, firefighters, lifeguards and physical therapists assisted her as she made her way a couple hundred feet off shore.

Pancho, who was 49 at the time, had suffered a stroke two years prior. The left side of her body was numb and weak. Her memory had deteriorated. For a time, walking free of assistance had been impossible.

Slowly and with great effort, Pancho recovered some of her strength and balance. But she hadn’t recouped the coordination necessary to charge a wave.

Sharon Pancho, 57, of Hanapepe, rides a wave in Hanalei Bay with the assistance of Kauai watermen, firefighters and physical rehab therapists who volunteer with KORE Kauai.

Courtesy of Sharon Pancho

“So they let me cheat so much,” Pancho remembers. “I stood on the board before the wave even came and I don’t know how many heads I pushed down, but I got my balance by holding on to the volunteers in the water helping me. I grabbed their hair and pushed down on their heads to stay standing, and my legs were shaking so much because I never did it before. But when the wave came I just went with it. I was surfing!”

And thus began Kauai Ocean Recreation Experience, or KORE Kauai, a volunteer-powered nonprofit designed to help Kauai residents with physical disabilities or other special needs get back into the ocean and, in many cases, riding a wave.

“We thought we were heroes that day,” says KORE founder and Kauai Fire Capt. Kurt Leong. “We took four ladies surfing and then we sat around for hours just thinking, ‘What did we just do?!’”

“I grabbed their hair and pushed down on their heads to stay standing, and my legs were shaking so much because I never did it before. But when the wave came I just went with it. I was surfing!”

On an island where surfing seems almost as essential as breathing, a group of dedicated wave riders set out eight years ago to create a monthly surf camp for people with physical disabilities — or any other impediment that might limit their ability to experience the stoke of gliding on water.

Surfboards in tow, KORE volunteers now gather by the dozens at Hanalei Bay to give surfing lessons to people who, in some cases, cannot swim or even walk. Participants range from kids with autism or missing limbs to adults with Down syndrome or brain injuries. Most first-time participants have never been on a surfboard in their lives.

“We even take people who are overweight,” Leong says. “I’ll absolutely count that. I’ll even count being elderly. Anyone that comes, we’re never going to turn them away.”

Since its inception in August 2009, KORE has grown from four “surfers” and a dozen volunteers into a network of hundreds of people who work together to make the beach and ocean accessible to all.

Pancho proudly shows off photos of herself riding waves.

Courtesy of Sharon Pancho

“As soon as you fall off the board, there’s always someone to pick you up,” Pancho says. “It gave me a sense of self-worth. These people here don’t look at disabilities like most people look at disabilities. They make you feel like you’re normal. They don’t see your limp. They don’t see your drag when you walk. That’s the most important thing I get out of KORE. It’s fun and I feel like everybody else.”

Pancho files through the photos on her cell phone and taps the one in which she is “surfing like a pro.” Using two fingers to enlarge the image on the screen, she thrusts it into the face of a reporter.

Knees bent and eyes cast toward shore, Pancho appears calm and steady. She’s even got a bit of style: Arms splayed out like wings, fingers spread wide. The ankle-high wave is hardly threatening, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that the photographer managed to capture Pancho surfing without any sign of the gaggle of volunteers who assisted in her ride. It’s a memory worthy of a frame: Just Pancho, a surfboard and the whitewater spray.

“This is the one I send to all my friends,” Pancho says, her face practically glowing.

She’s been catching waves at almost every monthly KORE event since the beginning and also works with Kauai County to coordinate islandwide paratransit service for other participants.

Although most of KORE’s following consists of Kauai residents — many of them repeat customers —  visitors with disabilities often show up at the organization’s monthly beach events eager to learn how they, too, might be able to learn to surf a wave.

A man enters Hanalei Bay at Black Pot Beach Park with the help of KORE Kauai volunteers, a floating wheelchair and a portable ocean access mat used to help cross the sand.

Courtesy of Sharon Pancho

The protocol is this: Leong or another seasoned KORE volunteer asks the newcomer a few questions. The intention is to secure a nuanced understanding of the nature of the participant’s disability. Next, the participant is paired with a team of volunteers equipped with the expertise required to make his or her water experience a safe one. Then it’s time to get in the water.

To this end, KORE has an arsenal of helpful tools: Floating wheelchairs, safety vests and a portable ocean access mat used to help disabled people navigate across the beach sand. In its quiver of surfboards, KORE has a pair of 13-foot 6-inch Dick Brewer boards designed with a concave deck that offers the rider increased stability. In case of an emergency, there’s a defibrillator, a supply of oxygen and a first-aid kit, as well as several medical and water safety professionals.

“To be able to do something that you used to do, even though there’s people assisting you, it makes you feel amazing. It feels like, ‘I’m back!’”

There’s also a generous buffet of food and live music. At the end of a beach day, most participants have ridden a handful of waves, enjoyed a heaping meal and made new friends.

There’s no charge to participate; KORE receives donations from organizations include the Kauai Lifeguard Association, Sticky Bumps, the YMCA and Hanalei Surf Company. Sales of KORE T-shirts also help the cause.

“Before I found KORE, it was hard to be at the beach because you see all these people out there in the water, and I can’t swim, I can’t go out there. But now I can,” says Geno Fernandez, a 45-year-old Kekaha resident who suffered a major stroke last year. “To be able to do something that you used to do, even though there’s people assisting you, it makes you feel amazing. It feels like, ‘I’m back!’”

The confidence Fernandez says he’s gained from learning to ride a wave has inspired him to take on another new challenge: Next year Fernandez will return to school in pursuit of a degree in education.

“I never thought I’d be on a surfboard,” he says. “Now you can’t get me off. It makes you think about all the other things you might able to do that I didn’t know you could.”

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