For the third consecutive year, the beach in front of the Castle in the Sand Hotel on 33rd street in Ocean City, MD will welcome surfers from all over the world, and a host of excited families when Surfer’s Healing returns Thursday, August 16th. This one-day surf camp for autistic children harnesses the natural, soothing power of the ocean’s waves to bring awakening to children with autism, and awareness to the community at large. The camp kicks off in the early morning hours on the 16th, but there are plenty of community centered events open to the public that support the fundraising efforts of Surfer’s Healing; the camp operates free of charge to the participating families who have registered in advance. For those who could like to help support Surfer’s Healing, the popular Volleyball Serving Contest returns the evening before, at 6 p.m. at Castle in the Sand Hotel and is open to the public. Following the camp on August 16th, Carabba’s will be catering a dinner beginning at 5:30 p.m. on the patio of the Castle in the Sand Hotel. All proceeds benefit the local Ocean City Chapter of Surfer’s Healing. This is an opportunity for the public to meet the surfers who travel from all over the world. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to witness a Surfer’s Healing event firsthand, read on to find out how the camp came to Ocean City, MD and what the experience is really like for families with children who have autism…
Just after 9:30am on a sunny August morning, a young boy clad in a life jacket rode in his first wave of the day—with a professional surfer standing behind him on the longboard. As the little boy came ashore, his face adorn with a humongous grin, the crowd standing along the beach broke out in applause, with many people clapping through spontaneous tears.
The emotion generated by what seemed to be regular activity at a surf camp—riding in a wave—hinted that this camp in particular, had a special meaning. The event kicked off just moments before, with hundreds of people clasping hands in a prayer circle on the 37th St. beach. It was an unbelievably beautiful scene, the start of Surfer’s Healing in Ocean City, MD, a one-day camp for autistic children.
Israel “Izzy” and Danielle Paskowitz, a couple from California whose son Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age three, founded Surfer’s Healing. Children with autism tend to suffer from sensory overload. But Isaiah seemed to find peace in the ocean. Izzy, a former competitive surfer, began surfing with Isaiah on the front of his board. This experience had such a positive effect on their son, the Paskowitz’s decided they needed to share it with other families of autistic children, and Surfer’s Healing was born.
This was the second annual Surfer’s Healing camp in Ocean City, with 170 families attending–up from 78 last year. It began when Kat O’Brien, mother of a young autistic son, attended a camp in Belmar New Jersey. Seeing the enlightening effect it had on many of the children, and profound effect it had on families, she wanted to bring the camp to the Eastern Shore. O’Brien contacted Surfer’s Healing, and they got right back to her. She was given the go-ahead; the next step was a grass roots team of local people who would make it happen. One of the most wonderful aspects of the camp is that it’s entirely free for families—everything is provided, t-shirts, food, life jackets, surfboards, and professional surfers from all over the world to take the kids out into the waves—but it takes a small army of dedicated people to bring it all to fruition.
O’Brien consulted with Kelly Loeser, who along with her husband Dale, own the surf shop Quiet Storm. Autism had become a passionate, near obsession for Loeser—her son Luke had suffered from a host of medical issues from the first week of his life, eventually leading to a diagnosis of autism. Loeser had spent the better part of the past five years researching the disorder. She jumped at the chance to help create a local Surfer’s Healing camp. The teaming up of O’Brien and Loeser lead to the selection of the Castle in the Sand Beach as the location, and with the help of Castle GM Patricia Smith and Woody German and Alli Hoffman, Surfer’s Healing in Ocean City became a reality.
Surfer’s Healing has an immediate and profound effect on the families who attend.
Deborah Parker, a mother who has five children, three of whom have autism, drove all the way from Hershey, PA just for the day. She spoke about the hesitation some children feel, acknowledging that her eldest son had reservations about the ocean, but she just knew what it would mean to him once he was in the water. She thinks he may have caught the surfing bug.
A teenager named Christian hesitated before entering the water. It’s important to note that many children who have autism also have triggers, things that set them off emotionally. In a situation where there are many possible triggers—constricting life jackets, the pounding waves, crowds of people—the impact of a child riding in a wave after overcoming a fear, is made all the more sweet. In Christian’s case, his hands were held by surfers from Hawaii, who, speaking in voices that in no way matched their size, reassured him and walked him into the water. He sat Indian-style as his wave came ashore, then jumped off the board and rushed to his parents literally beaming, leaving little reminder of the boy who was so apprehensive just moments before.
In other cases, there is no hesitation. Some kids take to that water like little fish, and actually ride in the waves standing up, like they are the professionals.
Stories abound—all of them positive, like the non-verbal children who speak for the first time, often to the surfers who accompany them out into the waves. One mother commented that her son smiled, something she hadn’t seem him do in years, while surfing. Her child standing next to her remarked, “I did?” not knowing what it felt like to actually smile.
It’s impossible to escape the infectious joy these children exude. Kat O’Brien summing up what an experience like this means to a child with autism said, “most of these kids will never be stars of their soccer teams, or stars of their classrooms, but here for one day they get to be rock stars of the beach.”
Beyond the joy of the children, extends the absolute elation of the parents, who could spend a lifetime just waiting for one day like this—a chance to see their child happy, or even speak for the first time. Their very presence, the openness they exhibit, the thankfulness in their eyes, the love they display for their children, is parenting in its truest and brightest form.
For some parents, Surfer’s Healing provides that longed for moment of awakening with their children. For others, its an opportunity to extend a helping hand to a community they know so much about. The autism spectrum is a broad umbrella of symptoms encompassing everything from mild behavioral or emotional issues to children who are completely non-verbal and shut off from the world. Local mother Andrea Baker, capturing the feeling of great camaraderie that seemed to be felt amongst all the parents, said, “no matter where your child falls on the spectrum, you just want to help in any way you can.”
That’s certainly true for Kelly Loeser. She recalls the first time her son waved—at two and a half. After doing extensive research, Loeser and husband Dale decided to follow a biomedical regimen of alternative therapies including diet and supplementation for their son. They were fortunate their tenacity paid off, and son Luke now has few symptoms, if any.
But, the Loesers are aware that many families won’t have the opportunity to see their children wave, or speak—those little things often taken for granted. In addition, families with children who have autism are often pushed to their limits emotionally and financially. Surfer’s Healing is a way to reach out to other parents, providing one day of community and respite from the everyday, and perhaps even giving them the unbelievable feeling of seeing their child smile for the very first time.
A Special thank you to Christine Ehrhart-Knight for the use of her photography
For more information:
Ocean City, MD Surfer’s Healing Facebook Community
National website is found here.