By GARETH DODD
Despite the rain, 20 disabled Big Island residents and their caregivers, along with 40 volunteers, gathered Friday morning at Kahaluu Beach Park to participate in Snorkel Day sponsored by Deep & Beyond.
Deep & Beyond, a Kona-based nonprofit, helps people with disabilities to take part in ocean activities that bring family and friends together, said founder Annamari Dietrichson.
“It’s a tradition,” Dietrichson said. “We never cancel Snorkel Day — unless the county closes down the beach. If I could have my dream, there would be Snorkel Day every day somewhere on the island.”
Born and raised on a farm in South Africa, Dietrichson, 34, has seen some of her dreams come true.
“I could swim before I could walk, and my first dream was to learn how to scuba dive,” she said. “But I grew up really poor, and I couldn’t save enough money to get certified until I was 21.
“It was so peaceful under the water, and I felt so much freedom. It was like a gold nugget dropped into my heart, and I wanted the disabled to share that freedom. I carried that dream in my heart for 10 years.”
During that 10 years, Dietrichson earned a bachelor’s degree in conservation ecology from University of Stellenbosch in her native South Africa and traveled the world, spending time in Norway, Taiwan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Canada and finally the Big Island.
“Everywhere I went I worked with the disadvantaged and disabled,” she said. “I’d tell people my dream, and they would always discourage me, until I came to Hawaii in November 2007. Here, everyone encouraged me.”
Dietrichson said only one person showed up for Deep & Beyond’s first snorkel day four years ago. Now, she said, up to 45 disabled attend the monthly event.
“The disabilities we see are everything from post-polio in elderly people to quadriplegics to people born without limbs to paralysis. We also have people with developmental disabilities,” she said. “We don’t exclude anybody; if you want to get in the water, we’ll help.”
Ocean View resident Rodney Kingsbury, 62, said he first learned about Deep & Beyond at church.
“I was attending church and a couple I met — they are missionaries — told me about the program,” Kingsbury said. “I have been coming to Snorkel Day for five or six months.”
Kingsbury, who has multiple sclerosis and is a quadriplegic, is the proud owner of a floating chair that was custom-made by a French company.
“It’s excellent,” he said. “I’ve been snorkeling two or three times with it. I’ve been with dolphins and in some big waves at a lot of different beaches, especially Milolii. I have quite a time with the chair.
“The volunteers and staff at Deep & Beyond are wonderful. I can’t say enough about the program and the people. It’s like family or a community. I’m going to keep coming to Snorkel Day as long as I can.”
Special education teacher Christine O’Gorman said she brings a group of students from Kahakai Elementary School to every Snorkel Day. It’s free, she said, and Deep & Beyond provides all the snorkeling gear.
“We started bringing our students when they started the program,” O’Gorman said. “We brought five today. Some of our students have been exposed to water, some have not. It’s a great experience for them. This is a phenomenal organization and a wonderful program.”
Volunteer Weston Kile, 20, said he learned about Deep & Beyond after coming to Kona from Monterey, Calif., with Youth With a Mission.
“I sat across from Annamari at a luncheon and she asked me to take kids kayaking at a day camp,” Kile said. “I had experience working with the disabled through Special Olympics and helping a friend organize a swim meet.
“I’ve been here six months. I’m looking at five years in Kona with Deep & Beyond, then want to multiply it to other locations and other islands. Is there a particular disability I identify with? No specific one, I love them all the same. Every time I see a smile, it brings so much joy to my life.”
Like Dietrichson, Kile draws no salary from Deep & Beyond; both are supported by donations from friends and family.
“Money comes from friends and family who have captured our heart at Deep & Beyond and support us financially — we all have supporters. They see what we are doing and support us so we can keep providing these opportunities,” Kile said.
Dietrichson said all money donated goes directly into the project.
“I live off contributions from friends and family in South Africa, New Zealand, Norway, Canada and the U.S.,” she said. “They send me $10 to $20 a month. It’s a tight budget but I make it.”
She said the other two staff members, Snorkel Day coordinator Stephanie Kovatch and camp coordinator Sarah Slaven, are also volunteers. In addition to Snorkel Days, Deep & Beyond also offers adventure camps to engage at-risk youth with hands-on discovery of nature through various outdoor activities.
“We’re not limited just to the ocean,” Dietrichson said. “Our adventure camps are from the ocean to the mountains; anything nature in general, anything outdoors.”
For more information on Deep & Beyond programs for the disabled or disadvantaged go to Deepandbeyond.org or call 326-4400, ext. 4017.