PHUKET: Damien Rider, who was dubbed ‘Men’s Health Man of 2015’ after completing an 800km unassisted paddle boarding adventure in the shark infested waters of the Gold Coast, will depart Nai Harn Beach at 7am on October 5 as he attempts to circumnavigate Phuket on a standup paddle board (SUP).
His four-day, solo SUP journey is designed to raise awareness of child abuse as part of his self-funded organization Paddle Against Child Abuse (PACA).
Though Mr Rider’s debut for PACA on the Gold Coast was sensationalized by 11 shark encounters, the Phuket challenge will have its own challenges.
“It’s totally unknown waters for me, plus on a standup paddle board is new for me too,” Mr Rider said.
“The biggest concern is if lightning comes from this monsoon weather and I’m in the middle of the ocean holding a carbon fiber pole,” he said with a laugh. “There are a lot of mixed currents due on the scattered islands which will make sections tougher.”
While training at Phuket Cleanse and Thanyapura, Mr Rider has been sharing his story with many students on the island, such as those at Phuket International Academy.
“From the age of six, my mom’s boyfriend came to live with us. I never grew up with a father, so he was the only man who came into the house,” Mr Rider said.
“My introduction to him was [the sight of] him beating police on the front lawn and then coming in and bashing my mom and then grabbing us and throwing us.
“It happened week after week. All the time I would just have to brace myself.”
The rest of Mr Rider’s childhood was filled with more abuse, and his constant attempts to flee it: sleeping in caves and under jetties – anywhere to which he could escape (Special Report on PACA and Child Abuse in Phuket here).
Though Mr Rider has enjoyed the community spirit and support he has received while training at Phuket Cleanse and Thanyapura, perhaps the most rewarding part of the program so far has been his talks with the children on the island.
“I had an amazing time with the kids at Phuket International Academy. You can tell the school is really making them aware of the challenges kids might face,” Mr Rider said. “The questions ranged from asking about the size of the sharks I saw and whether or not I saw dolphins, to if a child is facing child abuse, what tools can they use to deal with it – that was asked by a nine year old.”
Other questions included: What can we do if one of our friends is being abused? What would Mr Rider say to his attackers if he saw them now?
“Very intelligent children and I loved sharing my experiences with them. It has made me see that more needs to be done here,” Mr Rider said. “I’d like to try to implement a Thai and English speaking helpline where kids can call for support and the community can call for professional advice.”
Though Mr Rider has yet to make it around Phuket, he already has a number of other projects lined up, including a 550km paddle along the length of the United Arab Emirates in February and a paddle in the Arctic in May.
“From now until then, there are suggestions. But I’m really letting my drive for PACA guide me to where I can make the most noise on the issue,” Mr Rider said.
Mr Rider’s long-term goal is to establish an international network of beachfront houses for children who are suffering from abuse.
“Places that can really help and turn broken kids’ lives around by providing a fit, healthy environment. Places that I can use to unite happy families and strengthen bonds.”
— Isaac Stone Simonelli
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