MAKING WAVES, MAKING WINNERS
The Gulf Coast Skimmers give local youth an outlet for fun.
By LISA LEITH
Dustin Beatty, 18, of Naples performs one of his many tricks during a recent Gulf Coast Skimmers Show on Lake Avalon at Sugden Regional Park in East Naples. Dan Wagner/Staff
The oversized cards are dealt and all the bets are in as the tension mounts on the shores of Lake Avalon.
Todd Fiala lays down five aces and Dustin Beatty knows that can’t be right. He steals the pot and makes a barefooted getaway as Fiala is hot on his trail.
Beatty, however, isn’t running. He’s part of a Gulf Coast Skimmers show and Beatty is skiing away on Lake Avalon with his bare feet.
Soon, Beatty and Fiala are skiing barefoot side by side when Fiala wipes out as Beatty gets away with the loot.
That’s just one of the skits the Gulf Coast Skimmers put on each week inside Sugden Regional Park in East Naples.
Beatty, 18, has been a part of the show and outreach program from the start, while Fiala has been a member for three years.
"I used to pop my head over the hill and watched them ski," Beatty said. "And then they asked if I knew how to ski and I said I had with my father. Then they told me to go home and get my kneeboard and that is how it started."
In 1991, Beatty became the first member of the Gulf Coast Skimmers, an outreach. program that teaches children how to water ski.
"I was a part of the process of getting it started," says Beatty. "I just went along with it all. I was happy it was catching on and being very successful."
John Gursoy created the water ski and outreach program for the local youth in the Lake Avalon neighborhood after he found all the tail-lights and headlights broken on his car. He wanted to turn a negative into a positive. In the process, he helped make the neighborhood a better place by giving children something to do with their time.
And that is exactly what it did for Beatty.
"My parents would have kept me in line mostly," says Beatty. "I would not have gotten far, but I probably would have experimented with drugs and alcohol. But I haven’t probably because of John and the Gulf Coast Skimmers."
Beatty, a Lely High graduate, is a volunteer firefighter at the Isle of Capri station on Thursdays with hopes of becoming a paramedic.
Gursoy could not be more excited.
"Just to see him graduate from high school was one of the greatest highlights, even more than getting the money for the lake," says Gursoy. "To watch him go from A to Z, to see him hold down a job and to graduate is exciting."
Beatty also is attending Edison Community College and will transfer to the University of Central Florida in two years.
But he does not plan to stop skiing or quit his involvement with the Gulf Coast Skimmers.
"I want to start my own kneeboard camp as a private business on the side," says Beatty. "I want to watch other kids grow up water skiing like I did."
Beatty also has competed seriously.
He took part in his first event in Lakewood in 1993 and has been sponsored by Olde Naples Surf Shop in wakeboard and barefoot competitions.
"I have not actually won, but I have come pretty close," says Beatty. "In my best tournament, I’ve gotten fifth out of 35 competitors. But I am not only competing, but learning what my competitors are doing. It keeps me on my toes."
Beatty takes his experiences from the show and the contests and uses them to help with the younger skiers in the program.
"I tell the kids to stay with the program and to listen to what the adults have to say," says Beatty. "It will benefit them later on in life. Not a day goes by that I don’t use what the Gulf Coast Skimmers have taught me."
At. its start, the program had five kids including Beatty and it now has 53 on the roster. Gulf Coast has had more than 106 skiers go through the program.
"Unfortunately, some of them don’t stick. They find other things to do, but we did our job of keeping them occupied. But some of them still end up in trouble," says Gursoy. "They could be complete angels over the weekend and become different people when they get back to school. It is a whole different ballgame then."
The skimmers sometimes have special guests from different organizations such as Youth Haven or the Immokalee Sports Complex. These are youth who may have never been on skis or a boat in their lives.
"One of the kids who used to live in the neighborhood now lives in Youth Haven. That got us a foot in the door," explains Gursoy. "We had tried before, but were unable."
As one of the regular members, Beatty spends every night except Wednesday on the water at the new Sugden Regional Park in East Naples. On Wednesdays, Beatty and at least 75 percent of the members of the skimmers’ program are involved in some kind of religious activity. Beatty goes to the First Baptist Church on Pine Ridge Road.
"We use traditional Christian values to deal with them on a level playing field," says Gursoy. "And here was an example of a kid who had the opportunity to spend time with adults who wanted to be upstanding role models. He wasn’t really getting in trouble. He just had the potential and needed someone help him go in the right direction."