Children, young adults with autism ride waves at 13th annual surf camp

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Last week, a group of local children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related disabilities participated in the HEAL (Helping Enrich Autistic Lives) Foundation’s 13th annual surf camp in Neptune Beach.

Held Tuesday, June 26 and Wednesday, June 27 behind the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, the event hosted 30 campers supported by more than 100 volunteers. Each participant received instruction and the opportunity to surf, paddleboard, boogieboard, kayak and ultimately smile and have fun.

“It was amazing,” said Megan Davis, a Green Cove Springs resident whose three sons, two of whom have ASD, participated in the camp. “I don’t even think there’s a word that can describe the happiness and inspiration.”

Several local organizations contributed their resources to support the camp and ensure campers enjoyed the experience free of charge, explained HEAL Foundation Executive Director Jason Gurka. Among those organizations were the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach, which has provided a monetary contribution and volunteers since the event’s inception; Sunrise Surf Shop, which has also been involved from the beginning, contributing equipment and instructors; Beach Life Rentals, which provided umbrellas and chairs; and the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn and Lemon Bar, which made their parking lots available to campers and their families.

For the second consecutive year, the Care Committee from One Ocean Resort & Spa organized a silent auction to raise funds for the camp. This year, One Ocean raised $2,208 on items ranging from restaurant gift certificates to flower bouquets from Kuhn Flowers.

“Our associates, all 200 of them, had three hours to bid on a Wednesday afternoon and collect the $2,200 on over 40 silent auction items,” said David Mariotti, general manager of One Ocean Resort & Spa. “In our second year supporting HEAL, it’s become personal for many of our associates having witnessed the surf camp in our backyard and seeing the difference it makes in the lives of these children.”

Other local organizations that supported the event included the City of Neptune Beach, the Neptune Beach Police Department, Smart Pharmacy, TEAM HEAL, CBS 47 Fox 30 Action News Jax and Halyard Brewing.

The annual surf camp kicked off 13 years ago after longtime Beaches residents Dr. Don Sears and his wife, Kim, saw their neighbor with autism swimming in the ocean and realized the joy she experienced in the water. 

“She was free there,” Kim Sears said. “She was just like a dolphin. When you would see her in the ocean, it was relaxing.”

The Sears family had heard about a surf camp in California for children with autism, and they thought the Beaches community could organize a similar event. So, they partnered with the HEAL Foundation and organizations like the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach and Sunrise Surf Shop to make it happen. The first year the event took place in 2006, 10 campers participated, said Leslie Weed, founder of the HEAL Foundation. Since then, the camp has grown significantly and become a yearly tradition for the community.

“It’s like a reunion now,” Weed said. “It’s a reunion of all the surfer volunteers, all the community surfing guys that shed their doctors’ outfits and business suits and hop in the water and absolutely love it. It’s (also) a reunion for the kids who have been doing it for several years. It’s fabulous.”

The HEAL Foundation supports organizations, camps and schools serving those with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Northeast Florida. For more information, visit http://www.healautismnow.org/.

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