Healing Waves

BY Jules Norwood

A child clings to the front of a surfboard as an experienced surfer paddles the board into a small wave and stands behind him as they ride toward the shore. Grinning the child — who normally cannot even allow himself to be touched — squeals “I did it!” and runs out of the surf to hug his mother who cannot hold back her tears.

The place is Wrightsville Beach and the event is called Surfers Healing. The child is autistic and responds to stimuli differently making it difficult to participate in the day-to-day activities that most people take for granted. But on this day he’s a surfer.

Surfers Healing was founded by Israel and Danielle Paskowitz whose son Isaiah was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Isaiah who suffered from sensory overload seemed to find respite in the ocean and his father a former professional surfer began to take him surfing. Eventually the couple began to host day camps at the beach giving other autistic children a chance to surf.

Hampstead resident John Pike heard about the program and contacted the organization about bringing the event centered primarily on the West Coast to North Carolina. This year’s camp on August 14 will mark Surfers Healing’s third visit to Wrightsville Beach and organizers have been working hard since last August to create a North Carolina chapter and ensure that as many children as possible can participate.

Hannah Johnson of the North Carolina group says that the camp not only provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the children; it also gives their parents a chance to meet others who have shared similar experiences and to benefit from the support of a large group of volunteers and supporters. Surfers from the West Coast Hawaii and New York team up with local volunteers to create a safe and supportive environment on the beach.

“Some of the families that come don’t know anything about surfing and they don’t live near the water; some of them come from far away ” Johnson says. “They’re just allowed to be who they are. They’re on the beach with a couple hundred people and they don’t have to worry about whether anybody’s going to question them if their kid is having a tantrum or spinning in circles. They’re not going to have to feel like they’re being judged.”

One of last year’s participants Larien who traveled from Tennessee with her son MJ for the event says MJ has pictures of himself surfing at Wrightsville Beach on the wall in his bedroom and they watch the video from the event over and over. The best part she says was seeing the look on his face when he realized the crowd was rooting for him.

“The sense of accomplishment of facing fears and overcoming the fears was great for his self-esteem ” she says. “Any time you can increase a child’s self-esteem and self-worth you are giving something that will be with them for a lifetime.”

While MJ loves the water the idea of surfing was scary for him at first. Volunteer Zane Aikau who traveled from Honolulu for the event waited patiently while MJ screamed that he didn’t want to go and gave him the time he needed to get comfortable and stand up on his own. The payoff was MJ’s joy and sense of accomplishment.

Surfers have long touted the psychological benefits of the sport — the pure stoke that comes from interacting in such a personal way with the power of the ocean — but for autistic children the experience can be even more profound. Becky McGee-Hudson a psychoeducational therapist with TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren) an organization affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill reports that families who have participated in Surfers Healing say the event is incredible.

“What they’re doing is great ” she says. “I hear great stories from the families we work with. These are kids who have a lot of sensory processing difficulties and this is a different and unique sensory experience for them.”

It also gives them a sense of control and order; the activity makes sense. “You go out and ride a wave in and then turn around and do it again ” McGee-Hudson says. “If you’re a parent and your child has never had that type of experience and you’re the parent of a child who many times other people don’t fully understand that child it’s pretty magical.”

MJ’s mother says she can’t thank Surfers Healing enough for the opportunity they created. “I just want my child to have the same opportunities for discovery success self-esteem and confidence that typical children get. There are very few opportunities for our children when you compare the wide expanse of experience that is offered to typical kids. But what we are finding out in our journey is that organizations like Surfers Healing are addressing our children’s needs for experience opportunity self-worth confidence and self-esteem. The world will never know how thankful I am for opportunities like Surfers Healing.”

A benefit event at Wrightsville Grill last November and a surf art showcase and sale at Bluewater Grill in April helped raise the funds to bring Surfers Healing to Wrightsville Beach this year and several events are being planned for the months leading up to the event including a Loop walk and an art show.

The 150 slots for this year’s event filled up within a matter of hours and ultimately there were more than 700 applicants. Johnson says she hopes to expand the event to two days in the future but she doesn’t want it to grow so large that it loses its personal feel.

For those who participate in Surfers Healing from the volunteers to the children to the parents August 14 will be a day of discovery and joy in the waters of Wrightsville Beach. For more information visit www.surfershealing.org.