North Wildwood lifeguard Billy Auty stood on the beach watching his colleagues give surfing lessons to a group of children and teens with Down syndrome.
"The lifeguards say this is the best day of their summer," said Auty, a resident of Wildwood. "Just watching the kids' faces light up is awesome."
Auty is a main organizer of North Wildwood Beach Patrol's annual Beach Day with 21 Down, an event that brings together local lifeguards and members of the 21 Down organization for a day of fun at the beach.
The fifth annual Beach Day was held July 19.
"The first year we had maybe four or five families, and this year we have about 50 special-needs children and their families," said Auty, who came up with the idea for Beach Day with 21 Down with North Wildwood Beach Patrol Lt. Dave Lindsay.
21 Down is a nonprofit organization serving Atlantic and Cape May County residents with Down syndrome and their families. Its mission is to increase awareness, support and acceptance of people with Down syndrome through fun community events such as Beach Day.
North Cape May resident Lauren Johnson, whose son Charlie, 7, has Down syndrome, said the organization also helps local families touched by Down syndrome build relationships with one another.
"He's made friends through this; I've made friends through this," Lauren said. "It's just a great way to meet people in your area who share similar experiences."
This year's Beach Day included surf lessons and surf races led by the lifeguards, as well as pizza. In addition to the members of 21 Down and their families, about 20 North Wildwood lifeguards and 30 members of the Greater Wildwood Elks Lodge No. 1896 participated in this year's event, the latter group as volunteers helping with registration, serving lunch and selling event T-shirts through the day. The Greater Wildwood Elks also donated $1,400 for the event, making it the event's main sponsor.
Standing on his blue surfboard in the sand, Charlie Johnson put his arms out to his sides and pretended to ride a wave.
"He's really been looking forward to this," his mother, Lauren, said. "He couldn't wait to get his board to the beach. Right, Charlie?"
The Johnsons have been involved with the 21 Down organization since Charlie was born and have attended Beach Day every year since its start.
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For information on 21 Down, visit 21down.org.