Teacher customizes surfboards to give people with disabilities the ride of their lives

Ej Smith
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Luke Alvarez has been lying to his dog.

The middle-school teacher and surfboard shaper will tell Ola – his 120-pound Great Pyrenees – that he’ll be gone for only a few minutes before heading to a shed behind his Tuckerton, N.J., home. There, underneath a handful of LED lights and surrounded by power tools, he loses himself for hours in his side hustle: making surfboards.

Alysse Einbender, a MossRehab advisory board member who had a spinal stroke, rides a specially adapted surfboard created by Carusi Middle School teacher and surfboard shaper Luke Alvarez.

Alvarez, 62, has been “shaping” boards for 40 years under the name Generic Brand Surfboards, painstakingly sanding and planing preformed polyurethane boards, or “blanks” into shortboards, funshapes, and longboards. He produces 30 to 40 boards a year inside his blue-walled Shape Shack (as he refers to his shed), selling his models for $299 to $599.

Since 2015, though, he’s also been donating custom-made boards to Einstein Healthcare Network’s MossRehab for use by people with disabilities so they can participate in They Will Surf Again. It’s a free, one-day program, created by Life Rolls On and run locally by MossRehab, that allows people with spinal cord injuries to ride the waves on adaptive surfboards. This year’s event takes place Sunday, Aug. 4, on Baker Avenue Beach in Wildwood, N.J.

Alvarez works with input from MossRehab therapists to create big, roomy boards that are long and wide enough to accommodate both the surfer and the volunteer who rides tandem with him or her. The boards are even fitted with an attachment to accommodate a GoPro camera so surfers can capture the joy on their own faces as they roar toward shore.

What makes the boards especially sweet is that Alvarez, who teaches science at Carusi Middle School in Cherry Hill, works with students from both Carusi and Pinelands Regional High School, in Little Egg Harbor, to decorate them. This year’s models feature hand-drawn images of beachy sunsets and dancing sea animals intermingling on the padded board decks with inspirational sayings like “Just do it,” “Be yourself,” and “Stay strong.” Another shouts, in big curly letters, “Challenge Accepted” – MossRehab’s slogan.

“To see the excitement of the students when they see their own piece of art on the board is such a good feeling,” Alvarez says.

He got involved with They Will Surf Again when Einstein spokesman Kerry O’Connor, himself an avid surfer, read a 2014 Inquirer story about Alvarez and reached out to ask if he’d make a surfboard for MossRehab at discount. He hoped it would be an improvement on the hand-me-downs MossRehab patients were using.

O’Connor’s request: A specialized board long, wide, and sturdy enough to support two adults, one of whom might have partial paralysis or amputated limbs. The board also needed handles that could be repositioned as needed.

“Bigger boards offer more stability” and greater ease in paddling, says Chad Desatnick, the local organizer of They Will Surf Again, noting that some program participants weigh well over 220 pounds. “For athletes who might not be able to stand up, it gives them confidence and comfort.”

Rather than being daunted by the challenge, says Alvarez, “I was inspired.” And he insisted on donating his time and materials to the project.

His first board for MossRehab was about 9 feet long. Alvarez arranged for O’Connor and Desatnick to pick it up at his middle school, and mentioned it to his students. They immediately started collecting change to donate to They Will Surf Again. By the time Desatnick and O’Connor arrived, the kids had raised over $100.

Alvarez has made four more boards since. Students from Carusi’s special needs classroom decorated one of them. Watching them work was emotional for Alvarez.

“It was like ripping your heart out, but in a good way, to see how excited these kids were to be involved, to help people who couldn’t surf because of something physical,” he says. “These were kids with disabilities doing their artwork for people who have disabilities.”

That board was on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a time, and now resides in the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame in Tuckerton. Once a year, though, Einstein’s O’Connor “yanks” it off the wall for use in They Will Surf Again, where it’s put to joyous use.

“For some participants, the day is about a return to a life they didn’t think they’d have any more,” says O’Connor. “They thought these experiences were gone. This lets them be active again, athletic again, and experience camaraderie. For others” – first-time surfers – “this challenges them to give something else a shot. We end up with surfers who come back year after year. And now some of them are surfing on their own.”