When Rylee Howerton, 16, saw her friend, 19-year-old Chloe Byrne at the water’s edge she jumped off her surfboard, picked her up and spun her around in a giant bear hug. The smiles on their faces were so big they could be seen from the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
It was one joyous moment in three hours of many heartfelt moments during Saturday’s Heart of Surfing event on the Pennsylvania Avenue beach in Atlantic City.
Heart of Surfing is a non-profit organization that gives individuals with special needs a chance to catch some waves under the supervision of volunteers who are no strangers to the sport.
It was a bonus surf day for the organization — which usually meets on Saturday mornings at different beaches in Atlantic and Cape May counties — as Hard Rock donated much-needed supplies.
“They purchased five new boards for us, life vests and rash guards in neon colors to help us spot and differentiate the staff, the volunteers and the participants,” said Cindy Fertsch, co-founder and director of Heart of Surfing.
“It’s just a huge show of support for the disability community for what we do as Heart of Surfing.”
Approximately 50 volunteers from Hard Rock were on hand to help out where needed.
“It’s important to us to make sure that we’re part of this community. Hard Rock has always been very focused on giving back,” said Mike Woodside, vice president of entertainment and marketing.
Heart of Surfing was founded in 2014 by Cindy and her husband Bob for their son Jamie who had severe autism and loved the waves. Jaime died in 2020 when he had a sudden seizure at the age of 25.
To honor their son’s legacy they continue to work with families with children who are on the autism spectrum and have other developmental disabilities.
“It’s such a highlight for Bob and I getting to know these kids and their families and to see their smiles week after week. It really builds us up and makes our day,” said Cindy who stayed on the beach to keep things organized while her husband stayed busy helping out in the water.
The surfing started just after 9 a.m. near the Steel Pier as volunteers took the participants out in colder water than normal this time of year.
As each surfer caught a wave, cheers and screams of “stand up stand up” came from the large crowd of supporters who stood in ankle-deep water to get a better look.
Almost everyone needed a push to get started, but after that they were on their own for the most part. Some tried to get up, others did stand while some stayed on their stomachs or knees.
Eleven-year-old Luke Seabrook, of Cape May Courthouse, was one of those who stood and received a fist bump from Gravy who held onto the back of the board during his ride.
One of those cheering with a camera in hand was Julie Howerton who was watching her daughter Rylee.
“Yesterday was the first day, six years ago, that I stood up on a board.” She is originally from California and said she has the surfing blood in her and was quickly hooked.
“I’m a derelict. I like to try new things and just go out and be free and be in the ocean,” she said.
One of her favorite things is to tandem surf at the end of the day with her best friend Byrne, of Cape May Court House, who sometimes has trouble standing on the board.
“I just pick her up real quick to stand her up on the board and it’s amazing.”
Rylee’s talent isn’t just surfing, she is also a varsity athlete at Vineland High School and competes in cross country, winter and spring track.
She also just competed in the Miss New Jersey’s Outstanding Teen Competition in June as Miss North Jersey’s Outstanding Teen where her talent was weightlifting.
“I didn’t walk away with the crown but I did break some stereotypes for doing weightlifting as a talent.”
“I know a lot of people get afraid or they think they can’t do it or it’s too hard but being able to show people of the different communities that they can do things like this, I think it’s great.”
Cindy said that it’s important for people with disabilities to participate in surfing leagues, the Special Olympics or other programs and break the glass ceilings that surround the community. She said she is appreciative of Hard Rock for embracing them.
“They’ve really created a perfect day for our special needs surfers and we are so filled with gratitude for that,” said Cindy.
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