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“Bucket list” surf session lifts spirits for teen with cerebral palsy

Aaron Minnick was sitting on a rock jetty overlooking surfers riding long waves to shore, a regular ritual he’s done for more than a decade to soak in the saltwater scene.

Sometimes, Minnick wants to feel like a surfer so bad, he takes his older brother’s surfboard to the nearby harbor to lay on his belly and paddle around.  The few times he dared to take it into waves, he struggled, unable to balance on the board.

“Surfing is on my life’s bucket list,” Minnick, 19, said to his father, Dan, sitting next to him on the rocks at the Boneyards surf break at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

Veronica Ancheta Wold overheard Minnick’s bucket-list confession after stopping her bike ride to also watch the surfers.  After a bit of small talk, she asked why Minnick hadn’t just gone out and surfed.

No one has ever offered to take him, his dad explained.

So Wold offered on the spot to help check “learning to surf” off Minnick’s bucket list. They made a date to meet on the sand at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 15.

Little did he know, she wouldn’t come alone.

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Bond at the beach

Dan Minnick met Aaron when he was 4 years old, just months later adopting the youngster from foster care.

Aaron Minnick couldn’t walk and his limbs needed braces. Born with cerebral palsy, a motor disorder that restricts physical movement, he will have life-long challenges with movement and balance.

He had surgery at age 6 to cut nerves in his back, which helped loosen some of his contracted limbs, and after countless physical therapy sessions he learned to walk on his own.

But Dan Minnick, who has six children, five of whom are adopted and most with special needs, soon learned having physical limitations wasn’t going to slow his son down.

Minnick taught himself how to swim, “which is remarkable because he can’t move his arm,” Dan Minnick said of Aaron’s left limb.

“He is very resilient. He’s a fighter and tenacious,” Dan Minnick said. “He doesn’t give up.”

Minnick plays on his school’s basketball and football teams and dabbles in soccer. He has a full schedule, volunteering at several food pantries, churches and donation centers, including with Mercy House and Family Assistance Ministry nearly every day.

“He also goes to school full-time,” his dad said proudly.

While many people with cerebral palsy need to use a wheelchair or walker, through hard work and physical therapy Minnick has been able to adapt to walking without one, Dan Minnick said.

Personality-wise, his son is a social butterfly, Dan Minnick said.

So it didn’t surprise him when his son and Wold struck up a conversation on the rocks.

“Aaron has a light in his eyes, an innocent smile and a positive attitude,” Wold said.

It was a lift Wold needed in her own life. The emergency room nurse, who moved from Dana Point to the San Bernardino Mountains a few years ago, contracted COVID-19 in December and experienced long-hauler symptoms.

The camping trip she’s on this week at Doheny is her last hurrah before finally being able to go back to work.

Wold talked about surfing being on her own bucket list not long ago. She started stand-up paddle surfing at age 50, just five years ago. During their chat on the rocks, she told Minnick the place they were staring out was at the same place she learned to ride the gentle whitewash.

“He was really excited, almost like he believed now he could do it,” she said. “We talked about surfing and falling and all those things – you have to just keep at it. He knows a lot of surfers, but nobody’s ever asked him to go surfing or has been willing to surf with him.”

She called herself an “non-athlete athlete” who once hated the sand and saltwater, but after learning to surf fell in love with the sport.

“Surfing is the thing that relaxes me and de-stresses me the most, just being in the water,” she said. “It’s so freeing to catch a wave.”

It’s the same freeing feeling she hoped Minnick could experience, with the help of herself and a few new friends.

A surfer’s stoke

Wold returned to her campsite after her chance encounter with Minnick and put a solicit out on social media on local community forums, sharing their chance encounter and her plans to meet with Minnick for a surf session.

She wondered if people would want to come cheer him on or donate some surf swag to stoke him out.

Like a big summer south swell, the response came roaring in.

When Minnick eagerly walked onto the sand Thursday, he was greeted by friends and complete strangers who showed up to support his bucket-list surf session.

He was introduced to his surf instructor, Anthony Vela, a friend of Wold’s and owner of Performance Paddling, who offered to give Minnick the surf lesson.

Then, Minnick learned what he’d be riding waves on: a 9-foot orange soft-top surfboard, brought to the beach by Killer Dana Surf Shop owners Carrie and Mike Foster, a gift Aaron got to take home and keep for future surf sessions.

“That’s my board.” Minnick said in disbelief, wiping away tears. “I’ve never had my own board.”

The Fosters couldn’t hold back their emotions, salt-water tears flowing.

“We work really hard,” Mike Foster said of how challenging the past year has been. “And this is the reward.”

Vela first gave a lesson on the sand, teaching Minnick the basics of how to pop-up and paddle, warning of the waves that might try to knock him off the board.

As they got into the water, Minnick showed no hesitation as Vela and the waves propelled him toward shore.

This was the moment, for more than a decade, he’d waited for.

He popped up, feeling the thrill for just a few seconds before he fell, popping up from the water with a look of both determination and joy. Those few seconds of floating on top of the wave were enough for him to want more.

Again and again, he stood up on the surfboard before toppling into the ocean, cheers erupting on the sand with each second he glided above the water.

Then, after just a few tries, it clicked – Vela let go of the board and Minnick soared toward the shore on his own, his front arm out to balance, a smile across his face.

“Phenomenal!” he exclaimed after one of his rides.

Mike Foster was in the water helping with the surf lesson and marveled with Minnick’s enthusiasm.

“He was so energetic, it was amazing. I had to tell him to slow down, he was like ‘Let’s go, let’s go’! Two waves all the way in, that’s the trophy,” Foster said. “Every time there’s a new surfer like this that is so stoked, it’s an awesome thing. He’s a surfer now.”

Watching from the sand, Dan Minnick said he was shocked, never thinking his son would be able to surf and never expecting the community, complete strangers, to rally around his son.

“This has seriously touched my heart,” Dan Minnick said. “This is one of the happiest days of my life. I’ve always known there are great people in the world. I’ve seen neat things like this on TV. I never thought my kid would be a recipient of such a grand moment. He was so happy and so touched.”

Once back on the sand, a mix of smiles, cheers and tears flowed as Wold presented Minnick with gifts from strangers, now new friends – everything from hats and T-shirts, flip flops and board shorts to fit his new surfing lifestyle. He posed for photos, giving the “shaka” sign with his pinky and thumb out like a true surfer.

Minnick had just one question for his dad.

“Can we come back tomorrow?”


Source: Orange County Register

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