If you are a parent of a child on the Autism spectrum you know how challenging it can be to do "the simple things". The things that others take for granted, like going to the grocery store or out to dinner. And, the thought of a family vacation or even a family day at the beach often seem out of reach.. or like things require so much planning and working around that it doesn't seem fun anymore. At least, for my family that's the way it can sometimes be raising a child with Autism. Last year, I heard about a charity that was doing something really special.
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I almost didn't believe it could be true, but indeed it was.
The charity is Surfers Healing and they run surfing day camps all over the US and beyond for children with Autism and their families. Even more amazing is that the camps are free of charge. I signed my son up for to attend one of their camps last year (2005) at their New Jersey location (which was in Sandy Hook)and we instantly became fans. At 4 years old he was one of, I believe 40 surfers, to surf that day. The experience was so memorable that there was no way we'd miss attending the camp again this year, and as I write this we're all still wiping the smiles off our faces from attending this years NJ Camp, which was held in Long Branch New Jersey where over 150 children with autism experienced the surf.
A little bit about Surfers Healing....
Surfers Healing is the result of an amazing family made of Izzy Paskowitz, his wife Danielle and their son Isaiah who is Autistic. Izzy is a former competitive surfer who made a realization that his child responded to the waves and the surf and wanted to extend this to other families with children who have autism. Now, they make their way traveling around from beach to beach and sharing this gift with other families.
A typical day at Surf Camp
Children of all ages and abilities who are on the autism spectrum can participate. I'd say the younger surfers were 2 or 3 and upwards thru late teens. My son surfed at ages 4 and 5, and many more years to come!
When you sign up, they will give you an assigned surf time. Chances are that they will be running close to schedule but their could be some delays due to weather - changing jetties, etc. You should get to the beach probably about an hour or so before you are scheduled to surf so that you can get settled in. You need to check in and sign a waiver when you get there for photography and liability release. Then, you are on your own until its your surf time.
When your surf time is called, you take your child over to a station and they are put into a life jacket that properly fits them. The lifejackets have straps on them that are handles and the surfers use these to life them up! Once jacketed up, you will need to walk with your child down to the water where they will pair them with a surfer. There are assistants in the shallow area who will help you. Some kids are upset or scared, and others go willingly. My son loves the water and went very willingly.
The surfer will put your child in front of them on the board and paddle out a bit. At any given point there might be like 5 or 6 surfers out with the kids so they take turns catching waves and riding them in. When they get a good wave, they stand up and lift your child up by the life vest to a standing position. Some will ride in being carried, others even go piggy back or on the shoulders of the surfer, or sitting or kneeling. Its really amazing to watch these surfers on what seem like gigantic boards surfing in with our special kids. My son loved his time out there (around 25 minutes or so) and they rode in I think it was 3 or 4 waves. We have a video of it and took lots of pictures. To see pictures of the kids and the surfers you can look at the galleries on www.surfershealing.org .. its hard to put words to just how special it really is, so go check out the pictures.
To see photos of my son surfing this year copy and paste the following URL into your browser:
When your child's turn is all done you will need to help get them out of the water and take off their life jacket. Its really cold in the water so have a towel ready and a dry set of clothes including maybe a light jacket. My son is usually really shivery afterwards (bear in mind that we surf in NJ in September).
What to bring with you?
We bring with us lots of sand toys, a beach umbrella, a blanket, sunblock, some snacks and juice, towels and changes of clothing. And this year, we even invited some extended family members (grandparents) to join us for the fun and to help us out with the kids. Last year our daughter was not mobile but this year she was a very busy 18 month old running around everywhere. Oh, and don't forget your camera and/or camcorder.
What about lunch?
A light and healthy lunch and snacks are provided to the surfers and the families. This year our camp had a really nice variety of foods from Whole Foods including sandwhiches, fruits, drinks (water, juice, soda), snacks and italian ices. I was really impressed by the variety and also took note that many of the items were markes as Gluten Free. Since many autistic children are on special diets (GFCF), I thought this was super.
How do I find out if there is a camp near me?
Visit the Surfers Healing website to see their schedule and check back often for future dates. They usually include a tentative time for when registration will open for a certain date. For example, this past camp we registered in APRIL for a surfing date in early SEPTEMBER.
How do I register?
To register you will have to complete a simple application and fax it in. Off the top of my head, there are questions on the application about the height and weight of your child, if your child can swim, if they are a previous surf camper, and a few others. Be sure to send in your registration forms promptly after registration opens to ensure your child a space. The NJ surf camp filled up within a week of the registration opening.
Is it really Free?
Yes. There is no charge for your child to surf. You'll still need to incur any other beach type of fees, like parking or any rentals.
The camp is FREE because it survives on donations. You can make donations on their website thru flat out donations or purchases of Surfers Healing merchandise like a T-Shirts, hats, etc. Also, there are benefits held to support the organization and local Autism groups usually on the same weekend as the camp. We attended a really fun beach bonfire & bbq benefit the night before called the "Seaside Soiree" which was by donation only.
The bottom line
If you have a child with autism - check into Surfers Healing surf camps. This is an amazing organization that is doing something really special for our kids, and for FREE too. There is something really liberating about being able to just go to the beach and have a nice day with your child, surrounded by other families with autistic children too. These surfers spend the entire day in the cold water (they are in wetsuits) giving our kids an unforgettable experience. The smiles on their faces speak for themselves, since many of our kids do not have the words to express themselves.
Thank you surfers healing! Thank you Izzy, Danielle, Isaiah Paskowitz and all the surfers! Thank you Jennifer for all your behind the scenes hard work that you do!
See you at next years camp!
Read about our first experience with Surfers Healing here:
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Type of Camp: Sports
Best Suited For: Other
Camper to Counselor Ratio: N/A