The Best Day Foundation offers ‘the best day’ for kids with special needs
The Best Day Foundation promises that just — the best day.
It has been running camps on New Jersey beaches for 15 years, dedicated to creating a safe, fun beach day for kids with special needs and families who don’t have the opportunity to spend a day at the beach, Chairman Lake Downham said.
When he started the Virginia-based organization, he believed he and his friends could teach some kids to surf and have a fun day at the beach. But it has grown on so many levels over the years.
The volunteers consist of middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and young adults who love to help the children.
“Just to see them having this experience of service to others and the little light that goes off in them is an amazing experience,” Downham said.
Doing this for 15 years, one of the highlights of his life is seeing these levels of connection. It’s been an amazing experience to work with communities, and bring everyone together for a common goal of sharing the ocean and sharing the beach with families who have a little bit of a harder time getting out there with special needs kids, Downham said.
Downham has been a rescue surfer for the military for 22 years. He’s been an avid surfer his whole life and simply loves the ocean. His wife, Alexis has been a special needs teacher for almost 17 years. He said both of their careers sort of pushed them into this new life of wanting to give back to the community.
When the couple was living in Sea Bright, Downham was looking online and found a group called ‘Ride a Wave’ based in Santa Cruz, California that takes special needs children surfing. When Downham asked if they did anything on the East Coast, they said not yet.
It was Alexis Downham who told her husband they were going to start the Best Day Foundation chapter on the East Coast. He said when his wife puts her mind to something, there’s no stopping her.
“We ended up working with a few volunteers to start this organization in New Jersey and made our whole focus on New Jersey,” Downham said.
A day at the beach begins at 7 a.m. when the volunteers arrive at the beach and unload all the gear which includes tents, games, cornhole, ladder golf, and more. They dig a huge obstacle course to make it the coolest beach experience they can create.
The participants show up at 9 a.m. where they play with beach toys and get acclimated to their surroundings. Once they get registered, each child gets matched up with a beach buddy for the day.
Downham said beach buddies are important because one, it gives the child the experience with another person to have fun on the beach in a fun atmosphere. It also gives the parents a break so they can relax on the beach. But Downham said that rarely happens. Many parents love to follow their kids around with cameras, taking pictures.
Before they hit the ocean, Downham said he and his team spend time cheering on the kids, encouraging them and then the superheroes come out.
Volunteers dress up in superhero costumes where they all do warm-up exercises with the children and run through the obstacle course. The children then receive sunscreen, water, helmets, and life jackets.
Kids can sign up for several water activities including surfing, boogie boarding, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, swimming, and whatever the ocean allows them to do that day, Downham said.
With surfing, kids will go out on surfboards. They try to have three or four surf teams and a couple of bodyboard teams.
They’ll stay in the ocean until about 11:30 a.m. when lunch arrives. But Downham said before that, there is a big awards ceremony.
“We want to make these kids feel like they just won the Olympics. You just go nuts trying to get as many high fives as you can,” Downham said.
The kids come down one at a time, they run through the gauntlet giving high fives. They receive a goodie bag and a medal.
Downham said it’s just an amazing experience. Everyone has so much fun. The volunteers really make these kids feel so special.
After that, it’s group picture time, lunch and they call it a day.
Downham said he always thanks the parents from the bottom of his heart for trusting him and his team with their precious children. All he wants to do is show these kids a safe, fun day at the beach.
Earlier this month, Best Day Foundation was at Brick Beach III. Usually, they do many more events during the summer.
But Downham said as they return from the COVID-19 pandemic, they wanted to start the season off slowly, to see how they do and get re-acclimated with events.
So, while there won’t be any more events in New Jersey this summer, Downham said Best Day Foundation will be back next season full-time with six planned events on Saturday and Sunday in certain locations.
In the past, they have visited beaches in Brick, Long Branch, Asbury Park, and Sea Girt.