Drew Durfey, right, poses with John Afshari, a special needs coach who has known and aided Durfey for eight years. Durfey is gaining confidence thanks to newfound independence from a new job and living space. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Young man with special needs bridges land and sea

ENCINITAS — Drew Durfey could swim before he could walk.

His large hands and feet, as well as his long torso, helped propel him to the Special Olympics medal podium countless times over the years. When paddleboarding at Cardiff Reef and other spots, he’s got a talent for reading the conditions and spotting approaching waves.

“In the water, he’s as good as anybody — if not better,” said his dad, Ed Durfey.

Solid ground is a bit tougher for Drew, who has cerebral palsy. Balancing can be difficult. He has trouble estimating distances. And he struggles with understanding language and social cues.

But thanks to a new job and living space, Drew is slowly becoming as comfortable on land as he is in the water.

Earlier this year, Drew began working for Hansen’s Surf Shop, doing jobs revolving around organization a few hours every week, for which he earns hourly pay.

John Afshari, a special needs coach, has known and aided Drew for eight years. Afshari explained that finding jobs, let alone ones that pay, for special needs individuals can be extremely challenging.

It’s even rarer to land a gig that suits a special needs person’s interests, he noted.

“I like surf culture,” Drew said in response to why he gravitated toward working for a surf shop.

And his apartment says as much. Posters of surfers and stand-up paddleboarders paper his walls. Pictures captured on his camera show locals gliding on waves on an array of boards.

In more ways than one, the stars aligned to give Drew new opportunities, both at home and work.

Previously, Drew lived next to La Costa Canyon High School, where he graduated from more than two years ago. But this spring, after a few years of construction, Drew moved into his finished apartment on Cornish Drive.

The apartment is less than a quarter-mile east of Hansen’s, which is by design. Drew can’t drive. So his parents scoped out the spot, among other reasons, because it’s within walking distance of surf shops.

“We had this notion he could work for a surf shop, and we’re excited it worked out,” said Drew’s mom, Cori Durfey.

Proximity to surf culture isn’t the only advantage of the apartment. Although it’s next to his parents’ house in case of emergency, the apartment has its own kitchen and entrance, affording Drew privacy.

As well as Afshari’s guidance, mentors from the San Diego Regional Center coach Drew weekly on tasks like cooking and housekeeping. However, Afshari noted Drew is less reliant on outside help these days.

“He has privacy he didn’t (have) before at his old house,” Afshari said. “And he’s doing more by himself. So he’s very much becoming his own man.”

Yet another key in Drew’s path to independence: his biweekly trek to work on what Afshari calls “The Drew highway.”

On Thursday afternoon, Drew walked down the cracked sidewalk on Santa Fe Drive. A Hansen’s badge hung from his neck, bouncing up and down with each successive step. Afshari followed behind. Here too, Afshari sees Drew’s growth.

Lately, Drew seems more aware of his surroundings no matter where he is. Navigating the streets on the way to work has developed that skill.

Afshari watches over Drew during the walk due to traffic concerns and the possibility he could become overwhelmed by other distractions. But that could change in the future.

“Drew is on a trajectory to do this and other things by himself,” Afshari said.

Eventually, they came to the Santa Fe undercrossing, which opened several months ago. Without it, Drew wouldn’t have a clear pathway to cross the railroad tracks and reach his job. Needless to say, the undercrossing has “benefited us in a big way,” Afshari said.

After they emerged from the undercrossing, Drew and Afshari headed north on Coast Highway 101. Soon after, Drew spotted a friend eating lunch at Swami’s Cafe and struck up a quick conversation.

This came as no surprise to Afshari, who, along with Drew’s parents, noted earlier that it’s practically a guarantee he’ll run into someone he knows whenever leaving the house — regardless of where Drew is.

As his dad explained, Drew isn’t afraid to talk to anyone; he instantly builds rapport with people.

“He’s just so innocent that he’s very refreshing to talk to,” Ed said. “If you talk to someone with a big title, for example, you maybe are a little afraid to talk to them. Drew’s not.”

He added with a laugh that Drew’s shy friends in high school would send him to break the ice with groups of girls.

Drew’s parents believe he’s an ambassador for those with special needs in the workplace. On that note, Afshari added that seeing successful people like Drew in the workplace encourages employers to consider hiring more special needs individuals.

Afshari stressed that the gig isn’t a handout. Drew’s gregarious nature and work ethic make him a good fit for Hansen’s.

“The outgoing bit translates to success in a retail environment,” Afshari said. Eventually, he’d like to see Drew greeting customers and making sales. That will come once he gains more experience.

Once inside Hansen’s, employees welcomed Drew with waves and “hellos.” He stopped and briefly talked with some of them. Right at 3 p.m., he grabbed his timecard, clocked in and headed upstairs to an attic with excess inventory. There, a large box stacked to the brim with a jumble of hangers awaited.

Different hangers are suited for certain kinds of clothes. So it’s Drew’s job to separate them and toss them into the appropriate surrounding boxes. He picked up the process by watching Afshari, rather than by way of explanation or lecture.

From swinging a baseball bat to hitting golf balls, Drew has a keen ability to learn through observation. Most days, his golf swing will resemble the pros. Occasionally, Drew imitates his dad’s hitch in his swing — all depending on what his eyes are taking in.

Occasionally, Drew paused to chat with an employee, but then dutifully returned to hanger sorting. Ken Rodgers, manager of Hansen’s, said Drew brings a magnetic energy each time he enters the shop.

“The first thing you notice about him is his smile,” Rodgers said. “He has a smile no matter what’s going on. That’s endeared him to the entire store.”

“We look forward to Drew growing with us as he moves forward,” he added.

After an hour passed, the hangers were stacked in the right boxes. Drew clocked out, talked with employees who weren’t there when he arrived and began the jaunt back home.

Back on the Drew Highway, Drew excitedly mentioned training for an upcoming stand-up paddleboard race. On Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, Drew will take part in the Battle of the Paddle in Orange County with Afshari and a team of locals.

“Being in the water is really nice,” Drew said.

And more and more, it appears he’s taking to the land, too.