On the morning of the paddle, fishing vessels, dive boats, pleasure craft and inflatables set off from Santa Barbara Harbor and head up the coast. After half an hour, the captains cut their motors and drop paddleboards, and kids, over their sides. It’s early, just past 9am, and the water is a chilly 64 degrees. But that doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Keiki paddlers. Keiki is the Hawaiian word for child, and the Keiki Paddle is all about kids helping kids.
The starting horn sounds, and the paddle gets underway.
“We are going to be paddling about 11 miles, with about 120 kids -- it’s kind of like organizing cats -- to raise money for a little boy with a life-threatening illness," said Tavis Boise.
The 19-year-old Boise has been involved with the Keiki Paddle since it began in 2006. That was the year his mom, who had cancer, was the beneficiary of the Friendship Paddle, the Keiki Paddle’s parent organization.
“She passed a few months afterwards. It means the world to me,” he said. “I mean, this is like my life in a bubble right here. It's kind of like all of my hopes and dreams and like my whole past is just kind of boiled down to this paddle every year.”
At the halfway point, the sun burns through the fog, and the ocean becomes glassy. A curious seal pops up and takes a look around before slipping back into a kelp bed. Parents in support boats -- many are members of the Friendship Paddle -- offer encouragement, snacks and the occasional tow. But for the most part, the kids complete the paddle under their own steam, happy, smiling and laughing throughout. Three hours after they begin, they reach their destination.
A celebratory spray from the Harbor Patrol’s firefighting boat greets the paddlers. Riding along with one of his best friends, beneficiary Samuel Helfand leads the group to an emotional landing on the shore. Samuel is seven years old. He was diagnosed with spinal cancer last fall.
“This is just incredible emotional support. It’s paddle power,” said Samuel’s mom, Heidi Helfand. “Samuel’s been visualizing how all the energy from the paddles is just going to destroy his tumors. Everywhere we turn, we see a familiar face, we see people supporting us, we see kids that have built relationships with Samuel, who he just met. They taught him how to stand-up paddleboard. A lot of encouragement, a lot of positive energy. It feels great.”
Jayson DiMizio, a tall, athletic 15-year-old, is a veteran Keiki paddler -- and one who has experienced this event from both sides.
“I had a brain tumor when I was seven, and it grew back when I was 14,” DiMizio explained. “I had surgery on it twice, so they decided to make me the beneficiary for last year’s Keiki Paddle. I was pretty excited that they picked me, a little nervous, but it was cool. It meant a lot to me.”
The beneficiaries are chosen by the Keiki Paddle’s Junior Advisory Board, a group of teens who organize and run the event. Chase McFadden is a member of the board. “I got involved with the Keiki Paddle kind of on the early side, because my dad was the original beneficiary of the Friendship Paddle,” he said. “He had an inoperable brain tumor.”
Chase was seven years old when his dad’s friends organized the first Friendship Paddle. His dad died two years later. Now Chase is 17. He explained his commitment to the paddle. “It was kind of my way of giving back after receiving so much love and support. So, this allows me to maintain that connection by making the contribution to future recipients of the Keiki paddle.”
Boise added some thoughts of his own. “We try to say that we’re here to support the beneficiaries, but we’re also kind of here for ourselves in a way.” he said. “It’s a little bit selfish, because we come back year after year and see the same people and it’s just the same great feelings of, like, knowing that everyone there is there for you and you’re there for them.”
Each Keiki paddler commits to raising at least $150 in pledges. The board is still counting this year’s pledges, but last year’s paddle raised $20,000. The board hopes to top that this year.