The general sights and sounds of Surfers Healing every August are what makes it so special, but it’s the dozens of small interactions taking place throughout the day that tell the story.
My favorite thing each year during Surfers Healing – a traveling camp featuring experienced surfers taking children on the Autism spectrum surfing — is to simply observe. The family reactions to seeing their kid surf for the first time or even the 10th time are remarkable. There are smiles and tears, typically at the same time. It’s inspiring to watch the surfers working together to keep the kids safe, bonding with them for 10 minutes while providing them a thrill. All the volunteers who work incredibly hard to carry out the day’s mission have hearts of gold. After they surf, the kids’ reaction to reuniting with their parents and families will warm the coldest of hearts. There are dozens of beautiful moments merging to create an incredible day on the beach.
It’s amazing what transpires throughout the day. It’s why I just like to watch it all. Each of these special needs kids has a story. The journeys vary but the one commonality for all of us is empathy. We all understand how challenging our lives can be with our kids. Each child is different, and a host of challenges face each one. It’s a privilege to be on hand to see all the ups and downs – sometimes it’s the latter that turns into a memory.
There are typically some challenging moments involving reluctant kids who are scared and consequently combative when it’s their time to go in the ocean. One situation played out right in front of me from start to finish.
A little girl – who I would estimate to be about 7 years old – was having a tough time, refusing to go in the ocean and to even associate with the surfers who were to take her out. She was throwing a serious tantrum, crying, hitting and trying to run.
The surfers were amazingly patient, although after about 10 minutes of battling the girl the lead surfer seemed to be out of tricks to settle her down. The girl was scared and wanted to get away. I overheard him say he was worried about hurting her hand or arm holding on as she fought to get free. He said, “If I let go, she’s gone,” and he was right.
Because we have been in this position, I assume somewhere nearby the girl’s parents were watching and struggling with what to do. The parents’ instinct surely was to help, but they knew if they went to the girl there would be no turning back. She would never let go of the mom, dad or guardian after laying eyes on them. At the right time, a female surfer came on to help and picked the girl up immediately. I don’t know what she said, but her body language was calm and assuring. The girl settled down in a bit, regaining her composure enough to ride a few waves in the white water. It was a team effort and it worked. The male surfer did nothing wrong, but the woman’s new presence provided the trust the girl needed at the time.
Another special treat from this year’s Surfers Healing was a coordinated effort carried out by some locals to let Joshua Alton surf for the first time at the event. On the autism spectrum, Alton, 18, has been through a health nightmare for the last year. He has an uncurable cancer and has lost the use of his legs. While his health diagnosis is complicated and grim at this point, Joshua was given a thrill at Surfers Healing. He was carried on a uniquely designed surfboard by nine surfers and volunteers into the ocean so he could ride a wave through the whitewater. It was a moment to behold. As luck would have it, I missed it as I ran to grab something from our hotel room just at that time. Videos and pictures from friends helped share the moment. It showed the heart and compassion among the volunteers, epitomizing exactly what this day is all about.
As for my family, our routine is for Pam and Carson to line up together under the tent when his time to surf is called. The kids get fitted for life jackets there and wait for surfer availability. We have been with the same surfer, Blake, just about every year, and we wait for him to come free typically.
While he and Pam waited in line, Carson was clearly battling some emotions. I could see it on his face. He’s always a little nervous, but I’m sure it didn’t help that everyone had been talking for the last three hours about the rough ocean conditions and extreme currents that day. He also watched from the beach the groups ahead of him. It was natural for him to have anxiety. I had some apprehensions as well, but complete faith in the surfers to keep him safe and not push it too far. My concern was more about whether Carson would fight going out with Blake. The worries were unnecessary, as he was a champ.
Due to the size of the waves and strong currents, Carson had two surfers with him pushing him out on the board. He had four solid rides and enjoyed himself. There were no huge smiles during the ocean session, likely because he was scared. However, when it was over, he was all smiles. For the rest of the day, he seemed relieved and was happy to just observe.
Fur Pam and I, Surfers Healing came the day after we dropped Beckett off at boarding school in Virginia. For months, we knew we would have the huge back-to-back experiences. I had mixed emotions about the timing, but in hindsight I am glad they were scheduled this way.