Osęka was selected as one of the two young laypeople representing the United States Catholic community.
For one day in August, the ocean was an accessible oasis for members of the disability community. With the support of hundreds of volunteers, including students, faculty and alumni from Saint Joseph's University’s physical therapy program, surfers of all abilities in Wildwood, New Jersey, had an extraordinary opportunity to catch some waves.
Lora Packel, PT, MSPT, PhD, associate dean of the School of Health Professions and former chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, led a group of 13 students participating in the annual Life Rolls On event on August 6, which brought together more than 750 volunteers and athletes to give individuals with disabilities the support to safely surf the open water. For the students who participated, the experience was a powerful reminder of the importance of physical therapy in the lives of so many.
“When everything seems to go wrong, I want people to know it’s OK,” Ally Short ’24 (DPT) says. “You’re still able to do things that you didn’t think you’d be able to do anymore.”
Short was among the volunteers who helped athletes of all ages get from the parking lot into beach wheelchairs and then transferred onto adaptive surfboards adorned with children’s artwork and all the necessary supports for a safe and satisfying ride. Teams of therapists and volunteers then went into the ocean to help the athletes make their way into the water, where experienced surfers helped them steer their way back to shore, only to begin the cycle again.
For the athletes, it was the one exhilarating 30-minute window in the year when the ocean was adapted to their needs. For the volunteers, like Michael LaBrie ’24 (DPT), it was a special experience in its own way. LaBrie came to St. Joe’s to study physical therapy after leaving a career in the automotive industry, seeking a way to more meaningfully apply his compassion. In Wildwood, he saw how transformative his support could be.
“One gentleman looked like he was upset,” LaBrie says, “but after he got off [the surfboard] I realized he was crying in true joy.”
Jeffy Mathew USP ’16, ’19 (DPT) witnessed something similar at the Special Olympic World Games in Berlin this June. She spent a week volunteering as part of the Healthy Athletes program, working with other physical therapists to provide health screenings for athletes and offer education and exercises for them to work on with their coaches.
The atmosphere throughout the event was electric, Mathew says, serving as a reminder that, in addition to changing lives on an individual basis, physical therapy offers practitioners a chance to help bring entire communities together and promote inclusivity.
“The [DPT] program and volunteering for the Costa Rica Medical Mission trip in 2018 initiated my passion for disability advocacy among underserved communities,” Mathew says. “My experiences throughout those years created the basic foundation for my career goals and have now driven me toward public health matters related to serving the adaptive/intellectually disabled communities on a global scale.”
“The [DPT] program and volunteering for the Costa Rica Medical Mission trip in 2018 initiated my passion for disability advocacy among underserved communities."
For Mathew, the week’s highlight came while watching U.S. athlete Mitchell Betsworth successfully squat more than 275 pounds on the way to four Olympic powerlifting medals.
“The energy in the room was unlike anything I've ever seen before,” Mathew says. “You could tell it meant so much to him. Everybody jumped up out of their seats.”
At Life Rolls On, current students and alumni Richard DiGiacomo ’10 and Kathleen Connelly ’15 shared in an annual tradition with more than two decades of history. The event was started by Jesse Billauer, a surfer who became quadriplegic after being injured just weeks prior to turning pro. He wanted others to be able “to feel the freedom he experienced on the water,” Packel says. Watching the adaptive athletes muster the bravery to get on a surfboard was inspiring for the students who participated, she says.
“It gives them insight into the impact that physical therapy can have on people’s lives,” Packel says. “It gives them insight into the impact of an illness or an injury on someone’s mobility, but also the optimism and potential people can have even when they experience a serious injury like Jesse Billauer did.”
LaBrie echoes Packel’s sentiments and recognizes the impact of his degree. When one of the surfers on his team asked if he would jump on the board and help a young girl catch a wave, he stepped up, even though he’d never surfed before and was running on fumes after a long day in the deep water. They rode toward the shore together, having “an absolute blast,” he says.
“I felt very honored to be given the chance to get up on the surfboard and go down with one of the athletes,” LaBrie says. “I just felt so invigorated.”