Tourist with special needs gets surprise paddle board ride on Okaloosa Island.
OKALOOSA ISLAND — A 19-year-old special needs man received the ride of his life Sunday at the beach on Okaloosa Island.
Justin DeFrancesco, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, was visiting Fort Walton Beach with his family over the weekend when a random beachgoer approached him with an offer. The man, who introduced himself as Zach Bruhn, asked DeFrancesco if he wanted to go for a ride on his paddleboard.
"He loved it. He thought it was amazing," said Nickolas Clarke, DeFrancesco's cousin, who was touched by Bruhn's offer. "He was never able to go in the water before that. I just thought it was a beautiful gesture and that not all heroes wear capes. This guy was a hero that day."
Bruhn, a local Special Olympics coach for paddleboarding and surfing, said he came to the beach to paddleboard when he saw the family pushing DeFrancesco in a wheelchair. Bruhn, who said he was an introvert with some social anxiety, was on the phone with his mom and told her he wanted to offer him a ride on his board.
"My mom said I should do it," Bruhn said. "I literally couldn't breathe when I walked up to them and said I was a Special Olympics coach and wanted to know if he would like to go for a ride on my paddleboard.
"This was my first time taking someone out on the board who didn't have use of his legs. It wasn't a good day for paddleboarding or surfing, but I still wanted to take him out."
Bruhn and DeFrancesco were in the water for about an hour, according to Clarke. Bruhn said DeFrancesco even fell off the board once, but he and DeFrancesco's family helped him back up and they kept going.
"I would ask him if he was having fun and he would say, 'Having fun,' " Bruhn said Tuesday.
DeFrancesco's family said they planned to meet up with Bruhn again and maybe even offer him a gift. Clarke said this gesture proved that people are still doing good in the world.
"Super cool guy," Clarke said. "Amazing. It was just amazing."