OCEAN CITY — The beach at Sixth Street on Thursday was filled with people who rarely get to experience the sand and surf, many who are lucky to be alive.
The Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey held its 29th annual “Sun ‘N’ Fun Day,” an event that lets people with traumatic brain injuries experience a normal day at the shore.
Most were affected by some sort of injury or disease that left them with permanent mental and physical disabilities, most often from motor vehicle accidents, falls and violence or abuse.
Some could not walk, but they reached the water on donated beach wheelchairs. Others could not handle the hot sun, so they relaxed underneath 70 tents and umbrellas supplied by Bert’s Beach Rentals.
The city also waives beach fees, supplies extra lifeguards and makes a plywood walkway for the event.
“And they always arrange for nice weather,” said Barbara Geiger-Parker, president and CEO of the alliance.
For all that, people such as Rami Samman, 32, of Maple Shade, Burlington County, were grateful.
“You can’t be anything but thankful,” said Samman, whose brain was permanently damaged by a tumor when he was a teenager. “It’s just another great day that God’s given us.”
The event began as a small gathering organized by the alliance’s Atlantic and Cape May support group based out of the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation in Galloway Township. Those involved said it is the only such program that they are aware of in the state.
“It’s a day when they can get out of their residential environment and get to spend time with friends,” said Nutan Ravani, of Washington Township, Gloucester County, a volunteer and one of the original organizers of the local support group.
Many of the people knew each other from neural rehabilitation programs or from just coming back for the event year after year. Others were relative newcomers because their accidents happened recently.
Rob Snyder, 25, of Egg Harbor Township, was severely injured in a crash in 2010 in Lower Township. He lost part of his left leg and sustained injuries all over his body, including his head.
“I like seeing other people like me,” he said Thursday while sitting on a beach chair. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Those with injuries who attended had varying levels of function. Some could barely move or speak, while others were highly functioning and independent, in certain cases because of the work of doctors and volunteers to help them retain their normalcy.
Many of those volunteers and caretakers said they were just as excited about the event as their clients.
“Just to be able to get them back out to a natural environment — there is nothing like this,” said Jared Pfancook, 27, a cognitive therapist from Delran, Burlington County.
Dennis Satanoff, of Cherry Hill, was also there as a volunteer and the retired vice president of a local brain injury program, formerly called PLUS, which helped many of the clients there Thursday.
He said that New Jersey’s brain injury alliance is one of the best such organizations in the country, and this event was just one of the reasons why.
“Today is a real good example of volunteerism at its best,” he said. “This is a date we look forward to every year.”
Samman showered compliments on Satanoff as he ate a slice of Domino’s pizza, which provided food for the event along with Sack O’ Subs. He said that when he first entered the rehabilitation program, about two years after treatment for his tumor, he had a variety of disorders.
On Thursday, though, Samman did not appear inhibited at all.
He discussed how brain injuries have been a hidden health issue in the country for years.
“We used to call it the hidden epidemic,” said Satanoff, adding that there is new interest because of sports concussions and veterans returning home with head injuries.
“I didn’t know about brain injuries until I got one,” Samman said.
Through coming back to “Sun ‘N’ Fun Day” ever year, Samman said he has learned how much help he received in order to regain his independence.
“You look back and you really appreciate the people that looked after you,” he said.
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