Surfing for Autism was started in April 2010 by two parents with children who have autism. At the time, Eileen was directing the local OBX Chapter of the Autism Society of NC. They discussed organizing a run, but Eileen wanted to take advantage of the unique Outer Banks resources to provide a unique experience.
Eileen wanted to use our amazing beaches and partner our individuals with ASD with our amazing surfers. The idea seemed overwhelming but she briefly mentioned it to a local educator at a community meeting. By the time Eileen got home, the educator had returned to school, found another parent (Mark) who had a child with ASD who was volunteering that day at the school who happened to be a surfer, and emailed Eileen with this parent’s contact information.
In her email, the educator explained Mark was explaining how he wanted to pair surfers with kids with autism.
There were no more excuses. Eileen knew who could be served and Mark knew who could serve. Eileen knew she had to get in touch with Mark and push this idea into deeper water.
They met in a local coffee shop and Surfing for Autism was born.
Their foremost concern was, regardless of whether they could surf or not, the volunteers must have a heart for our participants and be amazing with them. They also wanted the event to be offered at no cost to the families because raising a child with autism can cost millions of dollars. They didn’t want Surfing for Autism to be an additional burden.
Because they knew unforeseen bumps were ahead in the first year, they started with only 30 local participants.
Eileen recruited some amazing local talent: Jen Lunceford (Occupational Therapist), Becci Shealey (Speech Therapist), and Ann Sumners (Exceptional Teacher). Mark recruited local surf shops: Outer Banks Boarding Company and Whalebone Surf Shop. Mark also brought in sponsored surfers: Jesse Hines, Noah Snyder, and OBBC surf shop owner and surfboard shaper, Lynn Shell, to organize the surfers.
Through the help of additional teachers and therapists – many who gave up their last taste of summer freedom before returning to work – individuals with ASD were offered the opportunity to surf. Each person on the spectrum was partnered with two surfers and a therapeutic professional and spent an hour in the water. Sensory activities were available on the beach for those waiting to surf and those who were done surfing.
Everyone was prepared to help the participants with ASD. What we weren’t prepared for was how this experience would not only change the lives of those with autism but also those who volunteered.
Volunteers commented for days how they thought they were coming for a simple “surf camp” and were not prepared for how this would impact them personally. The OBX community spirit was present as everyone cheered for loved ones and strangers as they surfed while families of participants had space to share with others who understood.
Participant numbers doubled the next year and all of our water and land volunteers returned.
We continue to keep the participants numbers low to keep from losing the closeness created between the surfers, volunteers, and families. We added a “meet and greet” gathering the night before the surfing event for families to gather while siblings of participants were recognized, celebrated, and given the opportunity to fish through the generosity of Jennette’s Pier.
Because families and volunteers weren’t ready to leave the surfing event, in 2011 we added a banquet to provide more opportunities for connecting while celebrating participant accomplishments. We also added a silent auction led by Lesle Hilliker to help with offset event costs.
A testament to how amazing the impact of this event – Leslie herself doesn’t have a child with autism, but wanted to be involved. We were forever grateful for her… until she moved to Maui. We’re all jealous but still try to smile as she posts pictures on Facebook. It’s not easy.
Each year, we look forward to another great Surfing for Autism event through the amazing support of our local community, volunteers, and supporters who make the event possible for individuals and families we love and cherish.
The ripple effects from this weekend are felt throughout the year and have a lasting impression on everyone involved.