Mackenzie Langley: It was really a way for me to be in control again |

Mackenzie Langley: It was really a way for me to be in control again

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Mackenzie Langley surfing in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. to The Aspen Times |

To say it has been a traumatic past 14 months for the Langley family is unjust given all that daughter Mackenzie and her family have endured.

Having gone through “hell and back,” as Mackenzie’s mother, Darnell, said, the 17-year-old was able to find peace and discover new possibilities for herself during a nine-day trip to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, with her family last month.

The trip was organized through Ocean Healing Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “providing once-in-a-lifetime, adaptive sports adventure to wheelchair youth” and their families.

Ocean Healing Group founder and Aspen Volunteer Firefighter Frank Bauer was the first responder at the scene of Mackenzie’s car accident June 2014.

Bauer was one of the two people to remove Mackenzie from the totaled vehicle and into the ambulance.

“It was the first time I ever worked with someone on an adaptive level that I had also helped in an emergency response level,” Bauer said. “I got to help her in probably the worst time in life, and to see her being so close to death, and then a year later to see her so embracive of life — was awesome.”

“It’s not so often that you get to spend a week with the person who saved your life,” Mackenzie said. “Frank saved my life, and then he showed me there’s still a life to live.”

The Langley family said they are “tremendously grateful” for Bauer’s work, both the night of Mackenzie’s accident and through Ocean Healing.

“We cannot do enough or say enough for what Frank did,” Darnell said. “It was the whole group, but the whole group wouldn’t have happened without Frank.”

Each year, on four different occasions — once in the spring, two times during the summer, and once in the fall — Ocean Healing invites three disabled children and teenagers between the ages of 7 to 17, along with their families, to an all-expense paid trip to a beach retreat in Costa Rica. The goal is to expose the kids to a variety of sports and activities they would never have the opportunity to experience otherwise, including surfing, snorkeling, zip-line tours, fishing, quad riding, nature tours and horseback riding.

Mackenzie’s father, Bob Langley, said their experience “far transcended anything that we’ve ever done.”

Darnell agreed, and said her favorite part was how “they (Ocean Healing) do everything they can to totally leave the wheelchair behind.”

Ocean Healing’s slogan — “carving the ‘dis’ out of disability” — epitomizes this mentality by showing disabled children what can happen when they are able to ditch their wheelchairs and re-gain control of their lives.

“There’s so many things that (Mackenzie) used to do and can’t anymore,” Bob said.

“It was really a way for me to be in control again, because so much of my life is out of my control right now,” Mackenzie said.

Bauer, who’s spent the past 22 years in Aspen, said his inspiration to start Ocean Healing Group came at an unlikely time — waiting for his tires to be changed at Big O Tires in Basalt. A television on the wall was playing a five-minute newsreel about a California nonprofit that surfed with disabled children using an adaptive surfboard.

Adaptive surfing — both a healing process and a sport — was a new concept at the time, and though Bauer had never heard of it before, he knew in that moment it was something he wanted to be a part of.

“Their smiles were huge, and I just had this epiphany — that’s what I want to do,” Bauer said.

At the time, Bauer had recently purchased a piece of land in Costa Rica, where he and a business partner were planning to open up a beach resort. Halfway through construction of “Shaka Beach Retreat,” Bauer called his contractor and told him to stop building.

Days later, Bauer arrived in Santa Teresa with an ADA book in hand, hoping to explain the concept of “wheelchair-accessible” to a group of Spanish-speaking construction workers.

After successfully relaying this message, Shaka Beach Retreat became an entirely wheelchair-friendly facility, and home to Ocean Healing Group.

“We can’t say enough about of how great our trip was,” Darnell said. “It was definitely healing for Mackenzie, but it was also healing for our family.”

Despite having missed much of her junior year, Mackenzie was able to keep up with her studies from the hospital during her recovery and intends to graduate with her class at Aspen High School in May.

The upcoming senior returned to the high school this week and is currently looking into colleges — with eyes set on California, where there are “flat campuses and nice weather,” her mother said.

Mackenzie added that it would be “awesome” to get back into some of the activities she experienced through Ocean Healing, particularly surfing and zip-lining.