Hanging Ten at the Special Surfers Night

As one of the core values of our firm, Systemscope prides itself on giving back to the community through sponsorship and participation in charitable events.   We are regular sponsors of Government of Canada Charitable Workplace Campaign events, An Evening of Hope, which raises funds for Lung Cancer Research, and the Ottawa Hospital Foundation President’s Breakfast.    We also encourage our employees to take advantage of their annual volunteer days for worthwhile causes.  These volunteer days have been used for fundraising bike tours (Tour for Kids), building playground structures for underprivileged neighbourhoods, participating in fundraising barbeques, organizing Christmas hamper programs, and being volunteers at our childrens’ schools. I would like to share my own personal volunteering experience – being a first-time participant in Special Surfers Night.


Two years ago, my wife Alexei suggested that we give surfing lessons a try in our adopted summer community of Kennebunkport, Maine.   Hey – at 45, you’re never too old to try something new, right?  So off we went.

Between our successful rides and epic wipe-outs, we got to know Nancy, the owner of the local surf shop, Aquaholics, who described a new program she had initiated to help mentally and physically challenged kids and young adults experience the euphoria of surfing a wave – an opportunity and experience they would otherwise never receive.  She stressed the need for volunteers, as there were never enough to accommodate the huge demand for this event.

Her passion was infectious and we decided to join the ranks of volunteers for this special event.  Our kids, Harrison (15) and Sophie (13) decided to dedicate part of an afternoon and evening to join us.  Donning our wet suits on Tuesday, July 19, we strapped our two paddle boards to the roof of our truck and made our way to Kennebunk Beach.

We arrived to a throng of people – professional surfers, surfer instructors, and amateur surfers like ourselves – all encompassing a large group of special needs kids, their families and assistants. There were over 500 people including 75 kids and 150+ volunteers – the biggest group ever!  We had anticipated being assigned a “captain” to our family, but Nancy came over and declared Alexei experienced enough to be the captain for Connor, a young boy with autism.

Connor stood in his bathing suit, looking at us with frowned suspicion and an index finger plugging each ear.  Along with his assistant, we encouraged Connor to join us in the water.  Taking him by the hand, we led him in to 3 feet of ocean surf then lifted him onto our board so that he sat cross-legged facing his assistant and his family on shore.   When we were all positioned, we gazed back at the ocean and looked for that “perfect wave”.

And then it came.

With shouts of encouragement from us and nearby surf groups, Alexei hopped on the back of the board to stabilize it, and she guided Connor in on the wave with the rest of us running though the surf, generally whooping it up.   After a first successful ride without incident, we asked Connor if he wanted to try again.   He gave a grudging nod, and his assistant confirmed that he wanted to go back out.


We rode about 8 or 9 waves this way with Connor, each of us taking turns to guide the board on the wave, until the 62F water finally forced him into retirement for the evening.  Connor’s assistant and grandmother thanked us profusely and told us that they would be back in August.

After we left Connor, our event organizer Nancy, ran up to us and enthusiastically directed our family to “The Gauntlet”, two human lines of volunteers waiting in the surf.   For this exercise, two children with physical disabilities (Ryan and Bryce) were each strapped into a specially-equipped chair, which was tied to a wide paddleboard with pontoon-like floatation devices attached on either side for extra stability.

With the perfect wave waiting to break, three experienced surfers (one in the back, and one on each side) guided Ryan and Bryce past “The Gauntlet” of volunteers who cheered and exchanged high fives as each of the boys rode past us.   Ryan had an ear-to-ear grin, as did his parents and brother, who picked him up out of his improvised surf-chair and embraced him emotionally – a truly heartfelt moment and reflection of the human spirit.

Special surfers

As consultants working for the public service, we take tremendous pride in knowing that our work ultimately has a positive impact on the lives of Canadians.  We take equal pride sponsoring worthwhile causes that help those in need.   But an evening event and special moments like these remind us of the importance for contributions at an intimate, human level.

So if you ever find yourself vacationing in the South Coast of Maine, and the surf is up on a Tuesday evening, come on out and catch the magic of Special Surfers Night!


Denis Barbeau is a Systemscope Partner and engineer with more than 15 years of experience helping public sector clients to successfully address significant organizational and business challenges. As the Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting, Denis’ experience and specializations include business planning and transformation, organizational redesign, governance and integrated process management. Denis’ broad experience in the public and private sectors, coupled with excellent communication skills, allows him to leverage best practices for a wide variety of organizations and propose achievable solutions for the benefit of his clients. In 2008, Denis was named one of the National Capital Region’s Forty under 40 by the Ottawa Business Journal. The awards recognize business people under the age of 40 for their career accomplishments, professional expertise and community and charitable involvement


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