Hundreds of children became unlikely surf punks Wednesday thanks to the fifth annual Surfers Healing camp that took over front beach.Launched by world-famous surfer Izzy Paskowitz, the camp is more like a traveling troupe of accomplished board riders who target beach towns and bring their love of the water to children trapped in the sometimes closed-off world of autism spectrum disorders.
The concept is simple: a surfer partners with a child and takes him or her out to the breakers. The duo bonds until they find just the right swell and then rides it in-tandem back to shore.
The free program is wildly popular as families of 200 children from around the Southeast signed up this year, twice as many as in 2011.
“This is like Christmas, being able to come here,” said Lisa Riddle of Summerville. Nearby, her 10-year-old son Alexander showed off the surfer-image medal that each child gets, signifying a successful ride.
Local organizer Nancy Hussey said Folly is a perfect location for the event since the day means hours of relaxation for sometimes overstressed families of autism, many of whom might never see the beach. “Nobody is going to stare at a child having a tantrum today,” she said.
Paskowitz started the program with his wife after their son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. The child showed many of the same emotional patterns seen in other autistic children that can range from sensory overload to inward retreating, or problems with communication and social interaction.
“It’s why I was born,” Paskowitz said of the reason he started the program. “There’s so much darkness and hardship. This is the least I can do.”
Nobody’s clinical issues seemed to matter much Wednesday as parents who normally store up gallons of patience let themselves go. Tears were shed often, as were screams of encouragement.
“You take a deep breath and you know they’ll be OK,” said Kim Atkinson of Charlotte, mother of Paden, 10.
“I’m thrilled,” added Jenna Gillis of Summerville, mother of 7-year-old Noah. “I’m not nervous at all.”
One of the more accomplished surfers was 19-year-old Eric Avant of Smoaks, who has autism but acted as a volunteer. He’s got the lingo down. “You feel loose; you’re just stress-free,” he said of the surfer’s life.
The Surfers Healing group travels widely. Stops include Hawaii, the Pacific Coast, the Atlantic, Mexico and recently, Canada. About 4,000 children a year take part.
Not all the kids who put on life jackets Wednesday seemed eager, but most did show signs of being calmed by the water.
“They go in crying, but they come out smiling,” said instructor Cari Beckerman, 31, of Long Island, N.Y.