There are many special events held in Ocean City each year, but the most meaningful to me is Surfers Healing.
Surfers Healing is a traveling surf camp that offers children and teens with disabilities opportunities to go surfing with buddies.
A message on the organization’s website reads, “Yet even though we had 6000+ participants at our surf camps last year – and even though autism now affects 1 in 68 US children – we don’t think in thousands. We think in ones, because that’s where we can effect change. One child. One family. One day at the beach.” It’s so well said.
In Ocean City’s case, about 200 local and visiting kids with Autism were matched with surfers last Wednesday from around the world in 10 groups spaced out throughout the day from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. The beach in front of the Castle in the Sand is roped off into a festival of sorts with tents set up spotlighting vendors offering special needs services as well as arts and crafts, apparel and food choices donated by local eateries. It’s aptly called “one perfect day.” The reality is tremendously imperfect, which makes it perfect for special needs families.
For me, I started the day early as a I usually do, but on last Wednesday I was up early to watch the sunrise and save our space on the beach near the ocean so we could watch the action all day. A peaceful start to an exciting day.
The event starts with an opening prayer circle, and this year was especially memorable with a heartfelt tribute and remembrance of Josh Alton, a local teen with Autism who died of brain cancer last year. With his health failing at last summer’s event, Alton was carried out on a special surfboard by a team of surfers and given a joyful ride in rough conditions. Josh’s mom, Tara, spoke at last week’s morning kickoff, getting the tears flowing early on what is always an emotional day.
After the prayer moment, the surfing began. Carson was set to go in group eight, which was after lunch. We had a great morning just watching everyone else, rather than prepping him with remaining time until he was up.
There were several moments when I was by myself throughout the day. It was these times that I cherished, allowing some time for reflection and witnessing the sights and sounds.
One teen who had to be over 200 pounds was battling some anxiety and refused to go behind the breaking waves. He was standing right where the waves were crashing and was getting knocked over. I watched three surfers – who were much smaller than him – try everything they could to convince him to go out further. After a couple rides close to shore, the teen complied and smiles of joy ultimately came.
Nearby, I watched as a young boy with low-functioning Autism repeatedly struck his surfer volunteer in the head in a tantrum associated with fear. It was tough to watch, but the surfer’s heart of gold won out. He got the boy out passed the breakers and the ocean magically settled him. The tears became giggles, while his parents watched from shore.
It’s these moments that hit deep.
No matter how many doctor’s appointments and days filled with bizarre and unexplained behavior from Carson, I have always tried to remember we are lucky. Life is not easy and it’s different than I ever imaged, but I know how fortunate we are with our Carson – who I would categorize as mid-functioning – because so many special needs families face struggles beyond those we face daily.
Carson is healthy for the most part and his greatest disabilities behind his neurodiversity is the fact he does not talk and is riddled with social anxiety. These other families’ lives are much more complicated and as difficult as that may be to accept on challenging days for us, it was confirmed last Wednesday as I observed so much more than I ever had before.
The overwhelming sense of perspective afforded through the visuals and sounds of the day were enough to bring random tears of respect, appreciation and spiritual awakening. I sat there in awe of it all.
Carson is now 13 years old and weighs about 160 pounds. The days of the surfers picking him up and holding him on the surf boards are largely gone. When it came time for Carson to surf, his buddy Blake – who he has surfed with six of the seven years – took control, having Carson sit on the board
so he could steady him for a few rides. When his time was up, Carson tackled his big brother Beckett on the beach in celebration.
Surfers Healing has become a day on our calendar we schedule a vacation around, even if it’s just eight miles from our house. There have been many memories along the way. Our first time was in 2016 when Carson was just six years old. During our second year, after Carson’s turn in the water, we ran into Surfers Healing co-founder Izzy Paskowitz. Carson and Izzy had a brief interaction I will never forget.
Carson started pointing to Izzy’s wet-suit and ran his fingers along the letters that made “Surfers Healing” on his chest. Out of habit, I told Izzy Carson was non-verbal. I always feel like I need to make that clear, so people don’t think he’s being rude when he doesn’t answer. Izzy, familiar with our world from his adult Autistic son, responded, pointing to Carson’s chest, “he’s told me everything I need to know already. Surfers Healing is in his heart, too.”
(The writer is the publisher and editor of The Dispatch. He and his wife, Pamela, are proud parents of two boys. This weekly column examines their transition into parenthood and all that goes along with it. E-mail any thoughts to [email protected].)