by Shannon Carr, Communications and Social Media Specialist

The ebb and flow of fireman, paramedic, former champion tandem surfer and lifeguard Danny Cortazzo’s life has swelled into something much larger than himself. Since being hit by a car and having a near-death experience in 1990, Cortazzo has helped thousands of children get in the water and have a life-changing day at the beach.

“That down time made me truly realize how lucky I am to be able to go to the beach and enjoy the ocean,” Cortazzo recalls. “It also made me open my eyes to the fact that many people might not have the opportunity to share in that experience.”

ImageMAC student Jacob enjoys catching a wave.

So he decided to share this feeling with others by founding Malibu Board Riders in 1992, while living in Southern California, to help children dealing with cancer at Ronald McDonald’s Camp Good Times get in the water to surf and boogie board.
After being hired by the City of Santa Clara Fire Department in 1995, he moved back to Santa Cruz and continued sharing the healing powers of the ocean with others.
In 1998 he founded Ride a Wave, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit organization that provides tandem surfing, kayaking and boogie boarding activities to people with disabilities.
“It is always an amazing sight to see our students laugh, play and enjoy the ocean in such a supportive environment,” Brad Boardman, executive director of Morgan Autism Center, says. The center has been part of the Ride a Wave events since 2007.

ImageMAC student Maria Oller receives hi-fives during a Ride a Wave event.

He continues: “Even more amazing is to turn your attention toward the parents watching their kids from the beach: wide smiles, laughter and a sense of absolute joy that their kids have an opportunity to enjoy such an experience.”
Ride a Wave is a program under the auspices of the Santa Clara Firefighters Foundation, a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“The Santa Clara City Fire Department has a long history of community involvement and it is one of the reasons I chose to work for this department,” Cortazzo explains.
So he ran the idea for Ride a Wave past one of his friends, and they both pitched it to the firefighters union.
“Everyone pulled through and was supportive from the onset,” he continued, saying support came in from the union in addition to some of his friends, surfing sponsors and more.
Their first event was in 1998 — held in conjunction with Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Department and City of Santa Cruz Lifeguard Service — and served 25 participants by 30 volunteers.


MAC student Maria Oller catches a wave.

“The following year we sponsored three events and we now host nine events each summer and send a crew to Malibu to assist the Board Riders with Day on the Beach,” he says of how it has and continues to grow. “It is amazing how our program has evolved yet our mission is the same. We have between 350 to 400 volunteers who participate during our season.”
Morgan Autism Center chose Ride a Wave for this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award for a number of reasons.
“Ride a Wave is an organization that truly understands how to share the gift of the ocean in a safe, supportive and truly fun way,” he explains. “For many, this day at the beach is the event of the year. To have the opportunity to experience the ocean as a partner in playful activity is truly a gift.”
Upon finding out about the honor, Cortazzo replied: “Anytime our program is recognized for its achievements it’s an honor. To receive an award from an organization such as the Morgan Autism Center that is a leader in special programs is really amazing.”

Cortazzo says his passion for the organization only continues to grow. “There are so many emotions that are gratifying about Ride a Wave,” Cortazzo says. “First and foremost is seeing the children having fun and to see their excitement. It is also amazing to see the community come together to provide this opportunity.”


Shannon Carr is Communications and Social Media Specialist with Morgan Autism Center. She formerly worked for more than six years at different Bay Area News Group publications.