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‘Lives in our hands’: Pauline Maniskas on helping people with a disability surf in NSW

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“We call it ‘smiles on dials’,” Pauline Maniskas tells The Greek Herald when asked about the reaction of people with a disability the moment they get into the water. “You can see their excitement as well as their parents’, straight away.”

For the last 16 years, Mrs Maniskas has been volunteering for the NSW Central Coast branch of Disabled Surfers Association of Australia (DSA). She is currently the Secretary and spends her time picking up phones, setting up activities and guiding volunteers.

This is only one part of her life-long volunteer history though and a small piece of her Greek-related journey. For her work, Mrs Maniskas’ name has just been included in the Australia Day Honours list, as reported by The Greek Herald.

Riding the waves:

Disabled surfing has been around for 36 years in Australia. Under the DSA, there are 19 branches in Australia and one in New Zealand. At the beginning of COVID-19 on the Central Coast, there were about 70 participants and about 130 volunteers helping to put people with a disability in the water.

To do that, the person with the disability needs a surf board and a volunteer on the board guiding them in the right direction.  In the meantime, there is a corridor of 10-15 people on each side of the surfer creating a safety channel, pulling them off the water if necessary. Volunteers with yellow, grey, blue, green and red shirts are also spread across the beach.

Volunteers help people with a disability surf.

“We will attempt to get everybody in the water. People with any disability you can think of: blind, deaf, Down Syndrome, autistic, quadriplegics…” Mrs Maniskas explains.

The past and the Greek connection:

Mrs Maniskas is the middle child of nine siblings. Growing up as a Roman Catholic in the Sydney suburb of Eastlakes, she always felt a connection with the church. The place also had a very strong Greek Castellorizan community, to which she was introduced playing basketball at a local club. There she met her Greek husband.

There was a moment during her engagement party when she was surrounded by Greek relatives who put golden rings and necklaces on her.

“I didn’t know that this was going to happen. Everybody was rushing, putting things around my neck and my hands and I was like, ‘what is going on’,” she recalls.

Pauline Maniskas.

“I was very accepted by the Greek community and I accepted it, as well as the culture. Most people used to say that I was more Greek than my husband.”

She later moved to Sydney where she tried to take her children to a Greek school. 

“I wanted them to have the Greek culture, and to learn things such as dancing,” she says.

Today, many of her grandchildren call her “yiayia.”  

Committed to volunteering:

Mrs Maniskas moved to the Central Coast in 1980 and raised her family by herself. She started volunteering in the area by helping a priest at the charity ‘Youth Off The Streets.’ This was a role she held for the next 21 years.

One of the people Pauline has worked with.

At the same time, she attended an assistant nursing course and later joined Camp Breakaway, a facility that gives respite to adults with a disability, sick children and their families. She has been a volunteer at Camp Breakaway for the last 22 years, and a board director from 2009 until 2022.

“I was in Camp Breakaway for about five years when I read in the local newspaper that there was a community forum about disabled surfing on the Central Coast,” she says.

“I was swimming in the ocean 5-7 days a week in summer and in winter. I could do this. I reached out to the man who started the organisation and said, ‘I am committed to Camp Breakaway, now I am committed to you too’.”

Over the following years, Mrs Maniskas has helped many people with a disability go into the water. She remembers many emotional stories, such as a girl with artificial legs, who’s life changed when she started surfing.

Pauline as a volunteer.

A quadriplegic friend of Mrs Maniskas, who used to surf before having an accident, also returned to the water and said afterwards it felt like he was “born again.” 

“They are really putting their lives in our hands,” Mrs Maniskas says. 

“I always said that when you give your time, you get back so much more. It is just joyful to see the smile on a face and to know that you made a difference in somebody’s life.”

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