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StarBulletin.com

Family on wave of aid


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POSTED: Sunday, March 01, 2009

The family that surfs together, serves together - at least for the Thomas family.

Years ago, surfer Brett Thomas taught his young family to surf. His wife, Dee, and their two young children, Torrey and Leila, embraced the sport.

“;It became like a real bonding activity for us,”; said Dee Thomas, who grew up in Hawaii but didn't learn to surf till she was 30. Though the children are now in college, the family still surfs when possible and even makes it the focal point of their vacations.

The Thomases also taught their children how to help the community and wanted to tie in surfing with helping other families, since it was such a bonding activity for them.

So they brainstormed as a family and came up with the Surf4Hugs event, which uses surfing as a means to help other families with seriously ill children.

The Thomases, who raised their children in the Bay Area in California, spent three months of the year in Hawaii with family, and have now made Hawaii their permanent home. Brett and Dee live near Diamond Head. Brett owns a property management company and Dee, a fitness instructor, is opening a fitness company this month.

The Thomases approached HUGS (Help Understanding & Group Support) because HUGS supports not just the ill child, but the entire family including the siblings and parents, Dee Thomas said. When a child is seriously ill, the whole family is affected, she said.

Son Torrey, 18, and daughter Leila, 17, are freshmen at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“;I'm definitely grateful to my parents,”; Leila Thomas said. “;Growing up, I didn't realize it as much. I used to take a lot for granted.

“;The way they brought me up, I realize now whether it's teaching by family surfing or Surf4Hugs or giving at shelters, it's important,”; she said. “;If you're fortunate and able to do that, why not.”;

Leila used the organizational skills gained with Surf4Hugs to organize her own fundraising event at her high school.

She coordinated five dance studios to participate in a “;Beat the Heat”; dance show, and raised $1,800, which was donated to a global warming foundation.

Torrey Thomas said, “;I feel pretty lucky that I grew up with parents who are surf-oriented.”;

“;I feel pretty blessed that I've been in that kind of environment because the surf culture is a great one to grow up in because it's laid back, loving and caring - they look after one another.

He said, “;It's pretty cool that my parents have been able to give back to, not only the sport, but to kids diagnosed with terminally ill diseases.”;

The Thomas kids have now taken over the reins of Surf4Hugs.

HUGS Executive Director Donna Witsell said Leila and Torrey are “;compassionate and very warm and friendly young people,”; who participate wholeheartedly in the event.

She credits their parents for the great job they've done in raising them.

Witsell says the entire “;Thomas ohana is incredible,”; bringing help from many, including beach boys, police and firefighters.

She noted the HUGS families look forward every year to the annual August event at Kuhio Beach in which Brett and his kids assist participants in the water, while Dee reassures nervous parents.

“;When you see the families arrive, they are so excited,”; she said. “;The children's faces just light up.”;

Many have never experienced surfing.

Brett Thomas, who was a sponsored teen surfer in Southern California, began teaching his kids to surf when they were 4.

“;When you surf as a family, you're sharing quality time,”; he said. “;You're out in nature. You're laughing because somebody's going to fall.”;