Simply put, Bethany Hamilton is a great human being. When she didn’t let losing an arm in a shark attack slow her down, Bethany became a role model to young women, young surfers, aspiring adaptive athletes, and quite frankly anybody who can appreciate the human will to fight on. It’s a story that transcends surfing and has made Hamilton one of the most recognizable people to spend a life riding waves. These are things we all know. But it might be one of Bethany’s lesser known stories that’s the most touching of them all.
When Siana Hunt started working for the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Hawaii chapter five years ago, Bethany was already one of the names she’d see come across her desk most often. Children with life threatening illnesses who had been granted wishes were regularly asking for a day, an encounter, and story to share with the one and only Bethany Hamilton. So, finding time in an already busy career as a professional athlete whose job responsibilities include nonstop global travel the Hawaiian surfer regularly spent her free days with those children looking for inspiration. It didn’t matter if it took a flight out to New Jersey, Bethany was going to spend quality time with children facing challenges even bigger than the ones she’d overcome. It seemed the most powerful experiences were the ones where she would host a Wish family at home in Hawaii. “She really wanted it to be an intimate setting,” says Hunt, now the President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Hawaii. “In her time between tour stops she would spend time with families. An amazing two days or three days showing them around her favorite places at home, hiking, surfing with them, and just sharing her heart.” Soon that personal experience of hanging with Bethany at home gave birth to the idea of a group experience. Bethany was granting so many wishes, and doing them with such a loving touch, that it just made sense to bring more and more children and their families to Hawaii. The Bethany Hamilton Surf Camp was born. A week of learning to surf, hanging out on the beach, talking to Bethany, and of course a group viewing of Soul Surfer.
But even with the one of a kind idea and all the good intentions in the world, Hamilton and Hunt’s Make-A-Wish team couldn’t have expected the camp as it unfolded. “We set a date and when we arrived in Kauai in walks Kala Alexander. In walks Keala Kennelly,” as Hunt retells the story. “People were saying Hey I heard about this so I jumped on a plane and came in.” Photographer Mike Coots jumped on board, as well as everybody else in the Kauai community from professional sand castle builders to bikini shop owners, all volunteering their time, talents and love to make the week something for Make-A-Wish families to remember. Bethany was the show Wish kids and their families came to see, but the entire island had quickly stolen the show with their goodwill. The second year was an even bigger success. And now in the camp’s third year, Make-A-Wish is able to reach out to the home owners of 20 different properties, giving 20 kids and their families a taste of Bethany’s version of Kauai. “Surfing is an awesome adventure for these kids and their families,” Hamilton said in an email. “I hang out and party wave and surf with them. We also hang out as a group and individually have a time to talk with each wish child. I let them ask me anything and just love on them as a friend. I keep it simple because I remember when I initially lost my arm, the people who treated me normal and loved on me had the greatest impact and made me feel normal.”
Siana Hunt has seen a lot of wishes granted in her five years with Make-A-Wish. in January of 2016 Kauai will come together around Bethany Hamilton for another installment of her surf camp. And Hunt says it’s the best wish they grant as an organization. Why’s that? Because a week of bringing families together to bond, and to do it in and around the ocean is special. Families walk away experiencing the love of an entire community they didn’t even dream was possible. But she also says we can’t forget the incredibly special person whose determination to help sparked it all. “For families, when a kid gets sick there’s nothing you can say. Sometimes there’s no healing words. But you can point them to a person like Bethany as an example and they’ll say you know what I’m going to live like that.”