By 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning in September, the waves are slowly starting to build under crystal clear skies at Narragansett Town Beach. It’s a good omen for hundreds who will arrive shortly for a day of surfing.
And while there are professional surfers here from California and Hawaii, the focus will be on 180 autistic children. They and their families descended on Narragansett from as far as Maryland for a program called Surfers Healing. It is the 5th year the day-long camp has been held in Rhode Island.
“Every day has been perfect,” said Richard DeSimone, whose 14-year-old son Anthony was diagnosed with autism more than a decade ago. “It’s like we’ve had a Xerox of the day for the five camps. It’s been the exact same day.”
DeSimone and his wife heard about Surfers Healing, a national program begun 15 years ago by Izzy Paskowitz, part of a legendary California surfing family. His own son Isaiah is profoundly autistic. The DeSimones took Anthony to three camps in New York and New Jersey. It convinced them to bring Surfers Healing to Rhode Island in 2009 and to raise the $10,000 needed to do it.
They had 50 kids the first year.
“I think autism and surfing, autism and the water are meant for each other,” Paskowitz said in an interview between surfing runs. “It seems very simple, a bunch of ragtag surfers taking a few kids out and riding a few waves. It is insanely deeper than that.”
The Surfers Healing organization has it down to a science, bringing everything needed out on the water for the day. A year’s worth of preparation in Rhode Island goes into making a smooth camp as the children are scheduled from mid-morning through mid-afternoon. There are toys, prizes, a lot food and a great day on the beach and in the water for the families.
The day officially begins just after 9 o’clock as everyone gathers in a huge circle for prayer – including a Hawaiian prayer – before heading to the water for the main event. Most of the kids go right in, leaving their parents at the water’s edge to watch and record the event. Some are a little more hesitant.
“The scene is always the same, and it happens a lot that the kids have meltdowns going in the water,” DeSimone says. “That’s part of their lives, it’s not indicative of this day. The motto of the camp is `Crying going in and smiling coming out’ and that’s what happens. Trust is a big issue for parents of children with autism. We don’t just trust automatically. We don’t give our kids to people and say, ‘Here they are. Deal with them for the day.’”
Narragansett was Sherry and Chris Halucha’s third camp in three days. The couple came from their home on Long Island with their son Benjamin.
“I can’t even put it into words. It’s such a special experience, it’s very emotional. It’s really incredible to be with others who share similar experiences,” Halucha said. “Once Benjamin has the life vest on, he starts to calm down. Then as he walks closer, he’s calm.”
Jen Kinney brought her son Andrew from Farmington, Connecticut. This was their second year here.
“It really starts when you come off the parking lot. Everyone is very nice and welcoming. The food is free, and they have free toys for the kids,” Kinney said. “The water is great; it’s after the season so it’s not crowded. And then the surfers – they just really take to them. They take them out there, and there’s no pressure. And they take them out there for a good long time. It’s not one and done. And they really take care of them. They don’t really even ask the parents too much about them so there’s no preconceived notions. They take all of their cues from the kids.”
We asked DeSimone: What is it about the water?
“Boy I’d like to give you an answer. I don’t know, but there’s a magical element to it that affects these kids, and you just have to attend one camp to see it. It’s a calming, lulling, exuberance. I’m trying to search for a word. I’m at a loss. It’s overwhelming.”
Sherri Halucha echoed that sentiment. “I think what’s most fascinating is that after the experience, that’s when you really see the benefit. He comes out of the water, he’s happy, he’s excited about it, he’s talking about the surfer, and he’s repeating all the things that the surfer told him out there.”
DeSimone experiences the same emotions as the parents he watches on the beach. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, when those kids come out of the water, they’re laughing, they’re smiling, and they’re happy. And the parents are crying, but they’re crying tears of joy.”
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