Rebecca Dykstra: Turning A Negative Into A Positive

By Rich Armstrong

With her therapy dog Ella Rebecca takes people with brain-related disabilities out for boat rides as a form of therapy.

Rebecca Dykstra with her therapy dog Ella and best friend

Rebecca Dykstra was barely 21 years old when she sustained a traumatic brain injury playing in a girls' rugby match while she was studying abroad in Ireland. The days when "school came so easy" to her were over in an instant. The injury came with hardships and symptoms, keeping Rebecca practically bedridden for six months with headaches, migraines, dizziness, fatigue, light and noise sensitivity, depression, and anxiety.

"It was hard for me to lift my head off the pillow because of my neck and the heaviness of my head. The only thing that would get me out of bed was the boat," she says. "I would save up all my energy for the week just to make it out on the boat for a few hours. Then I'd rest for the remainder of the week and do it all again the following week."

And it's "the boat" that is leading her out of the darkness. Three years after what is called "the invisible injury," because there are no outward signs, symptoms such as dizziness and fatigue still linger, she still has memory issues and difficulty with some higher cognitive thinking, she says, but she's turning a negative into a positive.

"Growing up, my parents owned a fishing-tackle shop then bought a marina, which they still operate," says Dykstra, 24, of Greenwood Lake Marina in Hewitt, New Jersey. "I've been around boats, and driving them, for a long time."

After her injury, her doctor's advice was to "do what you enjoy, to slowly get back into your life." Boating was her life, she thought. At some point during her days of resting up to spend a few healing hours on a boat, she realized it was having a positive effect on her depression and anxiety.

"I thought, 'If this is really helping me, why don't we put a boat aside and take out people with disabilities to improve their quality of life?'" she recalls, and an idea was hatched.

Her parents purchased and customized a 22-foot pontoon boat for wheelchair boarding and securing. A start-up donation from Mom was added, Dykstra says, and from there she dealt with the machinations of starting a nonprofit corporation with insurance and legal counsel.

Rebecca Dykstra and Kaylin AdityaDykstra says she gets great satisfaction and fulfillment from seeing people feel free and happy on her boat.

Dykstra and her best friend, Kaylin Aditya, started going to local disability schools to provide information on the boat rides that their new program, the North East Therapeutic Boating Organization (NETBO), planned to offer. In June, NETBO began offering free boat rides to disabled persons — mentally, physically, emotionally, elderly, youth, and indigent people — with Dykstra as skipper and Aditya, now vice president and crew. They are accompanied by Dykstra's therapy dog, a yellow lab named Ella.

They hosted more than 20 trips in their debut summer, Dykstra says.

"The youngest person was 14, the oldest 79," she says of her passengers, who struggle with cerebral palsy, brain injuries, brain tumors, and autism. On the three-hour trip around the lake, Dykstra takes them to beaches, spots to feed ducks, and even a shoreside ice-cream shop.

"Sometimes they don't want to leave," she says of her passengers. "Some don't talk, but they just seem a lot calmer on the water. They seem very grateful to be outside and enjoying a day out on a boat because some normally don't get to leave their housing facility or have never been on a boat before."

With a successful debut season, Dykstra says NETBO is a long-term program, currently funded entirely by donations from customers, local businesses, and local residents. "We have good community support," she says. The off season will be spent applying for grants and developing fundraisers to grow the program.

"It's been fulfilling and satisfying to see these people, who've struggled with injuries their whole life, feel a little free and happy on my boat," she says. "It really humbles me."  

— Published: December 2017

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