The waves were big at Freedom Splash on Thursday, said Oliver Brock of Danbury, but that just means bigger accomplishments for the 15 disabled and special needs children trying their hand at water sports on Lake Zoar.
The program, sponsored by Sandy Hook-based "Leap of Faith," debuted earlier this month, offering an aqua-thusiast’s dream of waterskiing, wakeboarding, aquaplaning, and tubing. Many of the kids were trying the activities for the first time.
Another participant, Mason Ortoleva, explained that he was a bit apprehensive in the days leading up to Freedom Splash.
“But then, when I actually got here and tried it, I found out it was really fun," he said. "All you need to do is believe, and you can accomplish your goals.”
His sentiments are widely echoed.
“I realy liked how I, like, did, like, float over the water,” said an excited Matt Noome, of Redding.
Many of Thursday’s participants are afflicted by autism, but one has cerebral palsy, and another – a boy who glided across Lake Zoar on one ski as if he’d been doing it all his life – is blind.
Joel Zeisler, who founded the non-profit Leap of Faith in 1991 to offer children, adults and wounded veterans with disabilities a chance for life changing adaptive sports experiences and meaningful connections, puts his vision in simple terms.
“The main thing is to develop a few skills with our individuals today,” said Zeisler.
The original inspiration to launch Leap of Faith came back when he was a competitive skier himself. A man came to him and asked him for guidance in trying his first ski jump.
Only after Zeisler agreed did the man mentioned he was blind. The fruits of what has ensued the last 23 years are most evident in the words and faces of participants and their families.
“It just gives these kids confidence, you know, that they can have a sport that they can talk about with their friends, and that they can, you know, enjoy,” said Vicki Celan of Danbury, whose son enjoyed his turn on the water.
“I have no upper-body strength,” explained A.J. Ceylan, “but the skiing helps me.”
Participant Jenna Ortoleva said she's proud of her progress.
“It keeps on building up, and then it’s like, right in there,” she said, pointing to her head, “and you can totally do it, like an expert.”
Freedom Splash and other programs offered by Leap of Faith are free. You can sign up, donate or volunteer online.