Surfing For Autism is an Autism Spectrum Disorder awareness event held each Summer on the Outer Banks of NC that provides our participants with an amazing experience and opportunity to surf. Each participant is partnered with two surfers and a skilled therapist or teacher who are well educated in the special needs of people with autism. Together, they experience paddling, surfing, and other creative ways to have fun in the sun.
is to offer individuals and families impacted by Autism Spectrum Disorder a supportive environment to connect and share by creating opportunities to experience the therapeutic benefits of surfing. Surfing for Autism is also creating a greater understanding of ASD through a variety of supports and activities within the community.
is to involve individuals with autism, their families, siblings, caregivers, therapeutic professionals, surfers, and the larger community in an inclusive, comprehensive, and compassionate experience which celebrates the therapeutic benefits of surfing.
How it all began
Surfing for Autism was created in April 2010 by two parents with children who have Autism. I was running the local OBX Chapter of the Autism Society of NC at the time. We discussed the possibility of organizing a run, but it weighed heavily on my heart that we were living at the beach with resources that could not be found everywhere that could provide a special opportunity that not everyone has…while everyone else in the country seemed to have walks and runs.
I wanted to utilize the amazing beach we have and pair up our individuals with Autism with the amazing surfers. It felt like something that would be too much, but I just briefly mentioned the thought to a local educator at a community meeting. By the time I got home, the educator had returned to the school, found another parent who had a child with Autism, who happened to be volunteering at the school that day, and who happened to be an avid surfer, and emailed me immediately with his name all of his contact information.
She wrote in her email that while I was looking to pair up our individuals with Autism with surfers, Mark had just been discussing how he would like to pair up surfers with kids with autism.
Now I had no excuse. I had to get in touch with him and pursue this idea.
We met in a local OBX coffee shop and Surfing for Autism was born then and there – I knew who could be served and Mark knew who could serve.
Our foremost concern was that regardless of if you knew how to surf or not, surfers and volunteers must have a heart for our individuals and be amazing with them. We also wanted the event to be at no cost for the families with the knowledge that raising a child today with Autism has been shown to cost $3.2 Million… we didn’t want to add to the burden of costs.
We decided that we wanted to start with a smaller number of local individuals as we figured they may be more forgiving with the different bumps we may encounter since it was our first year and to keep the event small in hopes of being able to contain the madness.
We had an amazing local Occupational Therapist, Jen Lunceford, Speech Therapist Becci Shealey and Exceptional Teacher Ann Sumners that I knew we would be able to recruit to help us out. Mark had local surf shops Outer Banks Boarding Company and Whalebone Surf Shop help us out while sponsored surfers Jesse Hines, Noah Snyder and local OBBC owner and surfboard shaper Lynn Shell organize the surfers and their efforts.
Together with the help of additional teachers and therapists, many who gave up their last taste of freedom of the summer before returning to work, 30 individuals with Autism were provided the opportunity to surf. Each individual with Autism was provided with two surfers and a person who was knowledgable about Autism and together they would spend a hour in the water surfing. Sensory activities were also provided on the beach to provide outlets for everyone who was waiting to surf and those who were done surfing.
While everyone was prepared to come out to help the individuals with Autism…what no one was prepared for was how it would not only change the lives of those with autism…but also those who volunteered.
Countless volunteers commented on how they thought they were coming for a simple surf camp and were not prepared for how it would impact them as they volunteered. The OBX community spirit was present and intimate as everyone cheered for loved ones and strangers as they each surfed. Family members were able to come together and share with others who understood.
We had such a success that we doubled the numbers for the following year to 60 individuals with Autism and had all of our volunteers and surfers return.
We still don’t want to get so large that we lose the intimacy that has been created among the surfers, volunteers and families. We also added another gathering for the night before for families to gather, while siblings were also provided an opportunity to be recognized, celebrated and afforded the opportunity to go fishing through the generosity of Jennette’s Pier.
We also found that families and volunteers were not ready to leave the event; so the second year we added a banquet to provide more opportunities for everyone to connect while celebrating everyone’s accomplishments and also provided a silent auction led by Lesle Hilliker to help with offset event costs.
As a testament to how amazing the impact of this event has been is that Leslie herself doesn’t have a child with Autism, but she had to be involved and help us out. (We are forever grateful for her… that was, until she moved to Maui. Now, we’re all jealous but still try to smile as she posts pictures on Facebook. It’s not easy.)
We are looking forward to another great year with Annual Surfing for Autism with the amazing support of our local community, the volunteers and those who donate to make this event possible for the individuals and families that we love and cherish.
The ripple effects from this one day are felt throughout the year and have a lasting impression on everyone involved!
SURF-BOARD OF DIRECTORS
What I love most about SFA… are the families and participants.
What I love most about SFA… are the families. I love the families and participants 86% more than Eileen does. That’s a scientific fact.
What I love most about SFA… Jen and Eileen only THINK they love the families. I ACTUALLY love the families and participants. It’s not really a contest, but I’m still winning.
What I love most about SFA… the families and participants as well, but I don’t think I want to get in the middle of Eileen, Jen, and Becci’s “I love them the most” situation.
What I love most about SFA… are the volunteers. They’re amazing. Jay’s my favorite. It’s not Surfing For Autism without Jay in a red rashguard holding a GoPro.
What I love most about SFA… I also love the families and participants but the amount of love Becci says she has for the family and participants is a slightly intimidating and, let’s be honest, it’s a little frightening.
What I love most about SFA… are the surfers. I love working with the surfers almost as much as I enjoy watching Eileen, Jen, and Becci debate over who loves the SFA participants and families more. (Off the record – They’re all wrong; I love them more.)