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DSA_NaomiSimson My life as an undercover volunteer

Secret Millionaire ‘“ Channel Nine 9.30pm 29 Oct 2009

Episode Four: Features Naomi Simson

Why am I so tired? Perhaps all this cloak and dagger is beginning to get to me. When I speak to people about myself, I just don’t tell them everything. What I say is true, “I’m a Mum who’s kids have got bigger and are at school so I have a bit more time on my hands and would like to volunteer.’ We have been on the road for a week – it seems a lot longer than that.

Today I’ll meet Steve Pickering ‘“ who slipped off a banister and became a quadriplegic in 2005. It took a while to sort out how to catch up with him.

It couldn’t have been a better day, weather wise for surfing. I’m not that keen on water at the best of times, yet today I pulled on a rashy ‘“ ready to head out with a crew to support a disabled surfer. It takes a minimum of 6 volunteers  (up to 20) in the water to support a disabled surfer.

The president of the local chapter, Craig of the Disabled Surfers Association ‘“ DSA, is grumbling about how much time it takes to set up one of the special $4000 wheel chairs. He says ‘If we had another trailer then we would be able to spend more time in the surf and less time ‘frigging’ around looking for bits to get these chairs back together ‘“ they could stay made up.’

I’m no use at all – these chairs clearly take expertise to put together, so I go off to meet some of the other volunteers and the participants. I meet the lovely Joshua who is blind, and has been on his first date last night. He has been surfing once before and he is excited to get back to the water.

I meet two young girls who explain they are from the local high school and they volunteered once as part of a school project ‘“ but because they enjoyed it so much they now come back of their own volition. The thing that I notice about these volunteers is that they are of all ages. It’s pretty laid back. Lot’s of expectant laughter as people look towards the surf. There are many guys who are clearly surfers. They love the surf and they donate their time so others can experience it.

I have often thought of running and staying fit as a chore, something that I have to do. In the moment that I meet Steve I finally understood that it is a privilege. I have been given a healthy body. The least I can do is look after it.

Steve belongs on a beach, he tells me that his first memories are of his early years on Stradbroke Island. ‘Hanging on to my Dads leg as he fished of the beach’.

As we chat I learn so much about Steve’s life, just to get out of bed in the morning, get showered, eat and all the things that take me about 15 minutes takes Steve 3 hours. He can never be anywhere early. To come to the DSA surfing event has taken an additional 2.5 hours on the train. So he left last night and stayed over night closer to the beach with a friend.

He tells me that the only time he feels free is when he is in the water. That everywhere else he has to be propped up. He looks forward to the DSA events immensely; he plans his life around the dates. He too volunteers his services and is part of the committee.

Steve explains how the DSA is the only place that does not ‘categorize’ disability. He said they are all so laid back, have a bit of a laugh’¦ and they just don’t judge.

The sun is shining’¦ and the procession starts down to the surf. Three participants can surf at a time. Everyone is wearing different coloured rash shirts depending on their role. Yellow for participant, aqua for volunteer, Red for team leader, green for marshal etc.

We take an eight-year-old down syndrome girl into the waves first. We all squeal at the temperature. She has done it before, but the waves are a bit rougher today so she is quite nervous.

There are eight of us with her including her mum. We all laugh and giggle. This is truly a shared experience. When she catches a wave we all cheer as she (with a team leader on the back of the board) head to the beach.

There a rafts of people holding each of the boards’¦ then volunteers create a corridor so when the board takes off there is someone near by all the way to the shore.

I head over to assist in the group who is taking Steve out. I’m not much sure how much use I will be. I take the chair to shore’¦. Steve looks so happy in the water doing his impression of ‘seaweed’. He wants to go out deeper. All the volunteers know him and are quite happy to oblige. I get totally dumped by a wave’¦. And am rolled to shore under water. From there I just take it all in. The laughter, the jokes, the sheer joy of the water is inspiring. This is one of the few moments where Steve is truly unconstrained.

As the surfers and volunteers head back up the beach, the barbeque comes out. Snags in bread’¦ nothing better. Everyone is sharing stories and recounting which wave dumped them. They begin to look forward to the next date.

I chat to Steve as he soaks up the sun. He shares more about his journey and ideas. He wants to start a clothing design label for people in wheelchairs. He is building a surf board so that he could surf on his own’¦ he has dreams, he has plans, he is determined and he will succeed.

It begins to rain. We have been so lucky with the weather. I ask Steve if I can see the board he’s building. He invites me visit his home at some stage.

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