ORANGE BEACH, Ala. -- After her mother suffered a stroke nearly four years ago, Kimberly Waterbury started making a memory book about her life.
“Then came this Alabama trip,” she said by phone from her home in Chandler, Indiana. “I have a whole new chapter. She wants to go back!”
Waterbury and her 95-year-old mom, Dottie Schneider, recently spent a week on vacation in Orange Beach, Alabama, with Waterbury’s best friend, Pamela Jones, and Jones' mother-in-law, Linda Jones.
Waterbury’s goal was to make her mother’s dream come true -- to feel the warm, soft sand under her feet. Not only did she do that, she also dipped her toes in the Gulf of Mexico and even, Waterbury says with a laugh, managed to bring some sand home to Indiana, about 600 miles away.
On their first day at the beach, Waterbury, who has a bad wrist, was struggling to get her mother’s wheelchair through the sand outside the Holiday Inn Express when a lifeguard with Orange Beach Surf Rescue saw what was going on.
“Our guards have been instructed to try to help people out if they’re having a tough time,” said Brett Lesinger, beach safety division chief for Orange Beach.
Shane Martin, the lifeguard on duty, pulled up on an all-terrain utility vehicle and asked whether they needed help. Waterbury told him that her mother can’t walk but would really like to go down to the beach.
Before she knew it, Martin helped her mother into the vehicle and drove her over the sand to the spot where lounge chairs and an umbrella were waiting, courtesy of the Holiday Inn Express.
He lifted the frail 79-pound woman into his arms and gently placed her on the chair, making sure she was comfortable.
All of this is documented on Orange Beach Surf Rescue’s Facebook and Instagram pages, where posts usually consist of 45-second daily beach videos. The photos Waterbury took of the young lifeguards taking such an interest in helping her mother get down to the beach made Monday’s post go viral. It’s been shared from the lifeguards’ Facebook page more than 11,000 times.
Meanwhile, “Ms. Dottie,” as Schneider became known to the lifeguards and just about anyone on the beach near her, is back at home with Waterbury and her husband.
In a phone call Tuesday afternoon, Schneider took the phone. She seemed at a loss for words, perhaps overwhelmed by the experience.
“We’re grateful, aren’t we?” Waterbury prodded her mother.
“Yes, we are,” Schneider said in a soft voice.
“And how did those lifeguards get you down to the beach?” she asked her mother.
“In their arms,” she said.
Waterbury had been planning their beach vacation since the spring.
“We’ve been talking about this for months,” she said. “We were counting off the months, weeks and days. This was the first time she ever said she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay.”
The lifeguards -- especially Martin, who is around the same age as Schneider’s great-grandchildren -- made all the difference. After they delivered Schneider to her chair that afternoon, they continued to take her down and pick her up for the next four days, like clockwork.
“That was overwhelming,” Waterbury said. “They were faithful. They were there. It made my mom’s whole trip.”
“Any day she felt like coming down, we wanted to make sure she got there,” Leisinger said. “We told her to holler if the sun was too much.”
But it never was too much for Schneider, who reclined in her chair for hours at a time in the shade of a beach umbrella, watching people go by as she listened to the waves crashing. Sometimes she would doze off.
The kind gesture gave Waterbury a chance to “just be a daughter,” she said. “I was not a caregiver, I was her daughter.”
She had hoped her mom might be able to spend two or three days at the beach. Instead, with the help of Martin and the other lifeguards, she joined them for all five days there.
After Schneider had a major stroke in 2017, she wasn’t expected to be able to speak again.
“She’s defied it all,” Waterbury said.
While she can no longer walk, she can stand with assistance. When she had to start using a wheelchair, it became more difficult for the family to go on their biannual beach vacations.
This year, “she wanted to put her feet in the sand,” her daughter said.
Waterbury was determined to let her mother see the water up close.
Thanks to the lifeguards on duty, Schneider’s dream came true. Her feet got sandy.
“We are forever indebted to the guys with Orange Beach Surf Rescue,” Waterbury said. “They made my mother feel special.” She stopped for a moment in the phone interview to compose herself as she started to cry. “She was not made to feel like she was a burden on anybody.”
Despite numerous attempts to tip the lifeguards, their offers were politely refused every time. The young men insisted they were performing a public service.
“All the pay we need is watching her smile,” they would say.
Though she is on home hospice care, Schneider continues to show hints of her adventurous spirit. After all, this is a woman who went parasailing when she was 89.
“She’s something else,” her daughter said. “She said, ‘When we come back next time, let’s find a place that will take me at my age.’”