OCEAN CITY – A day-long surf camp for children with autism returned to the beaches of Ocean City this week.
On Wednesday, 225 children with autism and their families gathered on the beach in front of the Castle in the Sand Hotel for the 13th annual Surfers Healing camp.
Throughout the day, surfers from as far away as California, Hawaii and New Zealand partnered with camp participants to ride the waves on tandem boards.
But for their families, organizers say, the yearly event is all about community.
“It’s one perfect day on the beach for everyone to be themselves,” said camp Co-Director Kat Trammell. “It’s great because the families, all of us, get it. No one is judging anyone or upset about someone having a tantrum or throwing sand. We all get it. It’s like our tribe.”
Bottom of FormFounders 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.
“Surfing isn’t a cure for autism, but you’d be surprised at the difference a day at the beach can make,” Paskowitz wrote online. “It’s amazing to see what our kids can do, and how they light up as they learn.”
More than a decade ago, Trammell worked with the nonprofit to bring a camp to Ocean City after seeing the effect it had on her son Connor, who participated in Surfers Healing in Belmar, N.J.
But what started as a small event has since grown to include hundreds of families from around the region.
“This day means everything to these families,” Trammell said. “I literally had one mother come up and thank me for organizing this. She said before her child surfed for the first time, they just drove up for the day. She said she spent her savings to come up and stay here for him to surf this year. That says a lot.”
Parent Nori Burkhardt, an Easton, Md., resident, said she has seen the effect Surfers Healing has had on her son Lucas, who first participated in a camp prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They gave him a little trophy and at times throughout the year he would bring us this trophy, saying ‘let’s go, let’s go,’ like he always wanted to come back,” she said. “So we’re hoping for that response again today.”
Burkhardt said the camp is also an opportunity for families and children with autism to gather together.
“For us, it’s a chance to get out there and for him to see his people,” she said. “We really feel part of the community and have had a really great experience. It’s something he would never get to do otherwise.”
Parent Elizabeth Burgos, a Rockville, Md., resident, said her son Christian was participating in his first year of Surfers Healing.
She said she is hoping the experience will prepare him for other sports activities.
“He doesn’t particularly understand what he’s going to be doing today, which has gotten us more excited to see how he does …,” she said. “We like this because we’re actually thinking about putting him into skateboarding, so we think this will be helpful with sensory issues.”
As first-time participants, Burgos said the experience has been an emotional one.
“I’m not going to deny it, when I got up to the front, just seeing this, it’s amazing that there are people who are willing to take the time to volunteer to do this,” she said. “I’m all about inclusion. He has a twin sister, so we always have him go to different events. But this is just amazing. I’m overwhelmed with how cool this has all been.”
Camp participant Thomas Shade said he will also be participating in his first Surfers Healing event.
While he’s been boogie boarding with family, he noted it will be his first time surfing.
“I am so excited,” he said.
Each year, Surfers Healing offers volunteer-staffed camps free of charge to more than 4,500 participants. Based in Southern California, the organization travels to beach towns across the U.S. and in other countries to provide a welcoming, accepting environment in which children with autism can surf.