Back on Board

March 25, 1996 did not begin unusually for Jesse Billauer — morning surf at his local break in Zuma Beach, California.

March 25, 1996 did not begin unusually for Jesse Billauer — morning surf at his local break in Zuma Beach, California.

On the verge of turning pro, his relationship with the sea was as natural and ongoing as the tides. The normalcy of that day was quickly upended, however, when he plunged headfirst into a shallow sandbar and the neck and spinal cord injuries he sustained left him a quadriplegic. A testament to the power of perseverance: upon leaving the hospital, Jesse had already decided that he would surf again.

What ensued in the years that followed the accident speaks to the best aspects of the human spirit, as both the local community and the surfing industry soon joined forces to help the young surfer pay his medical bills. From this outpouring the Life Rolls On Foundation was born, inspiring Jesse and his brother Josh to create an organization with a simple mission: to join people and foster hope, inspiration and independence in those living with spinal cord injuries. Billauer stated, “It is about bringing people together and changing lives one day, one program, and one person at a time. Each of LRO’s amazing programs offers the opportunity for the physically disabled to open their minds, help them forget about their challenges and to be thankful for the opportunity to still be alive.”

Life Rolls On’s flagship program is They Will Surf Again, sponsoring regularly held events where those with spinal cord injuries and their loved ones gather for an exhilarating and camaraderie-filled day of surfing. According to LRO Executive Director Kris Nakamura, safety is a priority at all of these events, during which they enlist the help of EMTs, volunteers from rehabilitation centers and specially-adapted surfboards to propel surfers with spinal cord injuries onto their boards and through the water. Some of these surfers have not surfed since their injury, and some are surfing for the first time. The idea, stated Nakamura, “is to bring people together to expand the boundaries of possibility.” Each event is, for many, the dawn of a new day. This year, LRO will bring They Will Surf Again events to Texas and New York.

Similarly, LRO also hosts They Will Skate Again and They Will Ski Again events. Nakumura said those programs operate under the same principal and serve as an alternative for those who would like to participate in sports but are less inclined to surf. Whether a chair skater is being pushed up the half pipe or a skier down a mountain, the idea is to once again provide a safe environment in which moments of complete independence are fostered. Nakamura recalls one teenage girl with a spinal injury who tried surfing but decided snowboarding is her true love. She now joins her family on regular snowboarding trips.

Expansion is certainly on the horizon for Life Rolls On, as it is now serving as the west coast chapter for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. This collaboration will increase support to the spinal cord injury (SCI) community and enhance the experience of participants at LRO events, in no small part because of the grants that the foundation is equipped to appropriate to LRO. Nakamura explained that the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation is focused on caring for those with spinal cord injuries and finding a cure, while LRO is fundamentally focused on quality of life. LRO remains a self-run organization and will continue to provide outreach to the community via speaking engagements and events. Nakamura said that LRO’s unique gift to the SCI community has always been its ability to resonate with the young; he pointed out that most spinal cord injuries occur within the 16–30 age group.

Volunteers have always been the lifeblood of LRO, and opportunities to become involved are ample. If interacting with people is what someone is looking for, they can volunteer at They Will Surf, Skate and Ski Again events, either to check in participants or to assist the athletes with their activities. LRO also hosts annual educational events at which volunteers are needed to help staff booths. Contributing to LRO’s communications outreach is also vital, be it inviting a speaker like Jesse to visit a school or organization, writing about LRO or connecting with the organization on Facebook and MySpace. LRO also offers membership opportunities for an annual fee, and the benefits of membership include being among the first people whom LRO contacts regarding new developments and fundraising events.

Ultimately, Nakamura recommended that potential volunteers identify within themselves what they are most passionate about and go from there. Some individuals begin their volunteering journey simply by attending a They Will Surf Again event and watching what unfolds. Recently, after finding inspiration in one of Jesse’s speeches, the president of a fifth grade class decided to organize a walk-a-thon for LRO and raised $12,000. Such examples illustrate the difference that each and every person can make, regardless of age or any of the other myriad differences in background that characterize members of the community. The possibilities, truly, are endless.

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