Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton shared her story of hope Friday night before a sold-out crowd of more than 300 at the Flanders Hotel. The 25-year-old Hawaii native told attendees that in the wake of the 2003 shark attack that claimed her left arm, she drew strength from the people and places she knows best.
“All of us will go through something bad at some point. It may not be a shark attack, but it will be something. When I go through hard times, even now, I cling to my passions: My surfing, my faith in God, and my family. Without those things, I wouldn’t have hope, and hope is everything,” she said.
Hamilton’s perseverance in the world of surfing resonated with the dozens of young girls in attendance, including 13-year-old Joni Dice, of Ocean City. A member of the Ocean City Intermediate School surf club, Dice called Hamilton “an inspiration.”
Her friend Jenevieva Mulhall, 13, also of Ocean City, agrees.
“Bethany has inspired me to be my best, to always try my hardest. She is the reason I started surfing,” Mulhall said.
All proceeds from the evening – which included live music, dinner, an auction and a Q&A hosted by Ocean City High School surf coach Mark Miedama – benefited the Ocean City Tabernacle’s Son Club, a free after-school program serving more than 200 local youths from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Son Club has expanded rapidly in recent years, providing attendees with one full hour of open gym, bible study, snacks and yet another full hour of homework and tutoring, often aided by National Honor Society and Interact Club members from the high school.
According to Eric Hitchner, Director of Youth Programs, the Son Club aims to send students home each day with all homework already complete because “that gives parents and kids their best opportunity to enjoy quality time together as a family.”
Son Club participants are also offered a variety of life skills classes such as sewing, cooking and guitar lessons. The latter option has proven particularly popular, Hitchner notes, for when a student faithfully attends lessons for one full year “the Son Club will actually give them the guitar – it becomes theirs to keep.”
That the Son Club continues to offer such services at no cost to participants has been “difficult,” however, he concedes.
“When I took over the program 6 or 7 years ago, we had about 30 to 35 kids. It was very manageable, and we were able to fund it . . . Now we have well over 200 kids and the cost of the program has really skyrocketed. But we feel like it’s so important to keep the program free. That way we aren’t discriminating economically in any way, or hindering anyone’s ability to attend. It’s an even playing field,” Hitchner explains.
Hamilton’s appearance Friday marks the first major fundraiser for the program.
“It has certainly been a lot of work, but we are hoping it is a success,” Hitchner adds.
Hamilton was a rising star when she was attacked as a 13-year-old girl by a 14-foot tiger shark during a Halloween morning surf session in Hawaii. Despite the catastrophic nature of her injury she returned to the water just one month later and in 2007 realized her dream of becoming a professional surfer, allowing her to compete in events around the world.
In 2013, she married Adam Dirks and in June the couple welcomed their first child, Tobias. Hamilton’s experience was chronicled in the 2004 book Soul Surfer, which was later released as a feature length film starring AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid.
On Friday Hamilton urged her young female fans to focus on inner beauty — both their own, and that of others. “Girls are expected to look a certain way, to be perfect and I disagree with that,” Hamilton said. “My identity is not in how my hair looks or how skinny I am, or whether my makeup is okay.”
“These are little things that fade away over time. Our identity is so much more than what we look like. Accept others as they are, and you will gravitate towards people who accept you for who you are.”
Because Hamilton’s father, Tom, grew up in Ocean City, Hamilton is familiar with the town — and its beaches.
Singling out Waverly Beach as a place for “fun waves,” Hamilton said she is always happy to visit. “I love coming here,” she said. “I love the community spirit.”