Guardian of the Week – AST2 Lake Downham

AST2 Downham surfing to shore

AST2 Downham helps one of the Best Day children surf to shore at Seven Presidents Beach in Long Branch, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Anthony Bianciella.

What would your best day look like?

For the hundreds of special needs children along the New Jersey coastline, their “best day” is spent with Aviation Survival Technician Second Class David “Lake” Downham and the dozens of volunteers of Best Day New Jersey.

Best Day is a non-profit organization that provides a safe means to involve children with physical and developmental challenges in outdoor and water activities. The New Jersey chapter, founded in March of 2008, is Co-Chaired by Downham and his wife, Alexis.

As an avid surfer, Downham was doing research into tandem surfing when he found out about the Ride a Wave organization and was drawn to the idea of helping special needs children. He and Alexis contacted the foundation and flew out to Santa Cruz, Calif., to see how Ride a Wave camps were run.

After extensive coordination, fundraising and recruitment for volunteers, Best Day, and its first chapter, New Jersey, hosted two day-long camps in the summer of 2008. In the following years, the success of the program took off, and hundreds of children have experienced their “best day.”

Each Best Day camp starts out with group stretches led by Spider-Man. After their stretches – super hero style – they are led through an obstacle course in the sand. From there the kids are taken out on the water where they are taught to surf, boogie board and kayak.

“My favorite thing to teach them is surfing,” says Downham. “A lot of the kids are afraid of the water and don’t want to get in, and then by the end of the day they don’t want to leave the water.”

This past summer there were six camps, but the fun doesn’t end when the weather cools down. Downham and the Best Day volunteers now look forward to the winter season, where they have added Best Day in the Snow, helping children learn to snow tube.

AST2 Downham receives his Spirit of Service award

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates presents AST2 Downham with the American Legion Spirit of Service Award with National Commander Clarence E. HIll (left) and actor/comedian Ben Stein (right) during the National Convention of the American Legion in Milwaukee, Wis. Aug. 31, 2010. DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison.

All of his community service and dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. On August 31, Downham, currently stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, received the American Legion’s Spirit of Service Award in recognition of his extensive volunteer efforts in the community.

“Our nation is fortunate to have such dedicated service personnel as Lake Downham who represents the very finest our nation has to offer,” said Commander Hill, of the American Legion. “For both his military service and his community service, Petty Officer Downham is a credit to his uniform and to our country. He makes me, and all the other men and women of The American Legion, very proud.”

As a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Downham has performed dramatic rescues and saved countless lives, but for him, seeing the children on their “best day” brings a different sense of satisfaction.

“To see someone who is so scared and encountering such a new experience and by the end of the day they have confidence, and they trust you – it’s amazing,” said Downham.