Editor’s Note: Growing up in southern California, Jesse Billauer’s love affair with the ocean took hold at a young age. From participating in the junior lifeguard program to boogie boarding and surfing, the majority of his time outside of school was spent at the beach. By the age of 17, he had become one of the top junior surfers in the world, and the countless hours spent he had put in on his board were carving him a path to the professional circuit. Then, everything changed. During an early morning session before heading to school one day, he was thrown off a wave headfirst into a sandbar, breaking his C6 vertebra and leaving him paralyzed. Despite his injury, his surfing days were far from over. A few years later, he got back onto his board and soon after, launched Life Rolls On to share his passion for surfing with the disability community and inspire others to keep working toward their dreams.
After my injury, it took a few years for me to get back on a board because nobody was really doing it at the time. I had to figure out how to make it work. Some of my friends and I came up with the idea to make a longboard with tow-in foot straps by the rails so I could wedge my elbows in and prop myself up on my stomach, and it worked. It was pretty wild!
While doing some interviews in San Diego, people kept telling me, "Life goes on." At one point, I looked down at my chair and realized, "Life rolls on," and I thought that was a cool name. We trademarked the name and decided to do an event to get people to come out and give adaptive surfing a try. That event was on September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers were going down, yet a group of pro surfers still came out and helped me and a few others get in the water. It was just mind-boggling. That’s how Life Rolls On started, and it just grew and grew from there.
Not only does Life Rolls On have adaptive surfing, but they also offer adaptive skating too!
We get sponsors and donations to run the events so that it’s free for all participants. We typically get over 300 volunteers and 70-100 people with disabilities out surfing. We work with each adaptive surfer to determine what they need and try to provide as much assistance as necessary. Our big fundraiser is the gala, which is an auction, dinner, and concert night. Jason Mraz is hosting it again this year. We were introduced many years ago, and now he’s a friend and very involved with Life Rolls On.
I just want to change people’s perspective on life and inspire them to get out into the world and enjoy it. I want to let them know that whatever they put their minds to, they can accomplish. Through Life Rolls On, people build relationships and friendships. It's about improving quality of life. It's great that people are raising money for spinal cord injury research, but we never know if a cure will be found. We all want to have a good quality of life every day, so that's what we focus on with Life Rolls On.
People get a lot of freedom and independence when surfing.
They get to enjoy being out there with nature and feel the wind and water on their face. Surfing brought everything to me in my life, so I just thought I'd give it back.
Come on out and see one of our events for yourself in person. There’s no need to participate right away if you feel apprehensive about it. Become familiar and comfortable with it, ask questions, and then jump in when you're ready!
Editor’s Note: Visit LifeRollsOn.org for a list of remaining 2018 events as well as details for those wishing to participate as an adaptive surfer or volunteer. In addition to surfing, Life Rolls On also hosts adaptive skating events. Check to see if they’ll be in or near your city on the website mentioned above.
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This article was extracted from an interview with Jesse Billauer. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!