Autism awareness event promises plenty of “stoke”
Unless a hurricane is rolling in offshore or a boat’s just blasted by, Florida Keys beaches are rarely sought out for surfing.
But a lack of waves is no problem at all for a group of Deerfield Beach surfers who decided in 2007 to form a non-profit to introduce young riders to the sport.
“You can easily put a 50-pound kid on a 12-foot paddleboard and simulate the surfing experience with a good push toward the beach,” explained Dave Rossman.
These kids, however, are overcoming more than the fears of trying a new sport – they’re also conquering the challenges of living with autism.
Since 2007, when their inaugural event came to fruition after a fellow surfer’s brother was diagnosed with autism, Surfers for Autism has focused on eliminating stigmas associated with autism through public awareness and education to unite communities through volunteerism.
Their main mission is to unlock the potential of people with developmental disabilities, support advocacy for autism issues and scientific research.
“We are so excited to bring this event to the Keys island chain, and Marathon provides the perfect venue due to its location,” said SFA President Don Ryan. “We recently announced our 2012 surf season schedule, and it is impossible to describe the positive feedback we received, including for this particular event.”
Children and young adults on the autism spectrum and with related special abilities spend the day being pushed into waves by expert instructors, and with no fear of mocking or awkward stares, families can let their guard down and enjoy the moment for a change.
These days are not just about the children, but also the families that deal with so much stress, frustration and uncertainty on a daily basis. Many families withdraw socially for fear of uncomfortable social situations, and SFA events provide a safe setting where they can just enjoy each other for a day.
Rossman said it’s been hard to pinpoint one of his most memorable interactions.
“There are so many, but last year I made an unbelievable connection at the Ft. Myers event with kid named Ryan,” he reflected.
Parents of first time attendees often arrive with a bit of trepidation. For years, these parents have been told time and time again what their child cannot do, but “cannot” is not in SFA vocabulary. Ryan instantly connected with Rossman at the Friday night welcome party, and the following day, the two spent the whole day together in the water.
“I still talk with the family at least once a week, and I’m hoping to get over to visit with them again soon!” Rossman said.
The feedback volunteers receive from parents after each event is clearly what keeps them going.
“There are no words to explain how incredible you all are for working so tirelessly and generously to give our special children such a fun and exciting day. Andrew said it was his best birthday ever,” said Jodi Rogoff.
The SFA Facebook page is flooded with comments echoing Jodi’s sentiment the day after events.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! You made some great memories for my kids today: It was a blast out there watching them do things I never thought they would,” said Melissa Feldhaus.
SFA events are free for participating families and also serve as fundraisers to fund future events and assist in furthering research and advocacy. On the heals of the organization’s first global event at Nobbys Beach in Australia in February, SFA’s inaugural Florida Keys event is slated for Saturday, April 14 from 9 am to 4 pm.
For more information, please visit www.surfersforautism.org.