OCEAN CITY – Surfers Healing returned to the beaches of Ocean City this week for a day-long surf camp for children with autism.
On Wednesday, nearly 200 children with autism, their families and surfers from Hawaii and California gathered on the beach in front of the Castle in the Sand Hotel for the 11th annual Surfers Healing camp.
While the event was canceled in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, camp Co-Director Kat Trammell said families were eager to return to the resort this year for a day of surfing and community.
“Some families fell off because they didn’t feel comfortable with the new variant, but we are still surfing almost 200 kids this year,” she said. “We are so ecstatic to be back here.”
Founders Israel and Danielle Paskowitz started Surfers Healing in 1996 as a way to help and connect with their youngest son, who has autism. Israel Paskowitz found that surfing calmed his son and soon began inviting other families to join them. Since that time, the organization has expanded to several yearly events around the nation and in other countries.
More than a decade ago, Trammell worked with the nonprofit to bring a camp to Ocean City. She noted the impact it had on her own son, Connor.
“I got involved because my son actually participated in Belmar, New Jersey when he was four years old,” she said. “I reached out to Surfers Healing to see if we could bring it to Maryland, and they told us they’d like to add another camp. So, we’ve been doing this now for 11 years.”
Each year, Surfers Healing offers camps free of charge to more than 4,500 participants. And in Ocean City, what started as a small event has grown to include hundreds of families from around the region. Leading the effort is Trammell and Co-Directors Woody German, Sabra Gelfond and Dave Leiderman.
“All the families look forward to this because they get to bond and connect with other families that get it,” Trammell said. “They understand autism, and they aren’t being judged on the beach if their kid has a tantrum or anything like that. And the kids have grown closer with some of the other kids, volunteers and surfers. So, they look forward to it every year.”
On Wednesday, participating children partnered with professional surfers to ride the waves on tandem boards off the beaches of 37th Street.
Parent Lauren Faley of Glen Burnie, Md., said she was eager to see her son, Kobe, participate in his first Surfers Healing camp.
“Our son’s doctor at Kennedy Krieger recommended it to us because he likes to do sports and things like that,” she said. “I think it’s good for the community of kids with autism to get together and let them do something different.”
Parent Kim Prince of West Ocean City agreed. She noted there were few activities for children with autism.
“There are minimal events that are autism-friendly, where you can come out and feel like you are part of a group the entire day,” she said. “That’s the number one reason we got involved.”
Prince noted her daughter, Abby, was returning to Surfers Healing for the fifth consecutive year.
“As they say, it’s the best day ever,” she said. “It helps them to have something to look forward to, a day where they know they will be accepted all day long. Everybody is so welcoming and supportive.”
Parent Tina Hornung, a Harford County resident, said the yearly event not only empowers families of children with autism, but educates those who pass by the Surfers Healing camp.
“What you’ll witness here is that there will be people that walk by and start asking questions,” she said. “They want to understand what this is about, and every time they get completely touched by experiencing and seeing what is going on.”
Hornung noted her son, Tyler, loves participating in Surfers Healing. She added it was also a day for families to be together.
“For me as a parent, it’s just about that sense of community and being with other families,” she said. “Whether my son’s out there or not, I just love seeing the other parents. I love seeing them experience something that’s just incredibly beautiful. This day is all about supporting others, no matter what abilities you have. It’s truly a perfect day being out on the water.”
Surfers Healing is the original surf camp for children with autism. Serving communities since 1996, volunteers with the nonprofit travel across the country – from San Diego to Rhode Island – to catch the waves with camp participants.
“Attending our camps positively impacts children with autism; the experience helps instill confidence and calm,” the organization’s website reads. “Yet over the years we’ve seen that Surfers Healing also has a profound impact on parents. Autism parents are always hearing about what their children cannot do. But at a Surfers Healing camp, it’s all about what their kids can do.”