And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Tribute to "Surfers Healing"


Recently my son Clayton had the opportunity to participate in Virginia Beach's Surfer's Healing event for children with autism.  This was the sixth time he has gone surfing with the pros, and I must say, he absolutely loved it.  But it wasn't always this way.
Surfers Healing is a terrific organization, with a unique approach to helping families dealing with autism.  Rather than get into any more about the Foundation, I'll just link you to their site:  I encourage you to check them out.  And if you are able, please contribute to them, or any other worthy Autism organization.
While I have spoken of Clayton's love for the ocean since he was very small, the first time he participated in Surfers' Healing he wasn't as crazy about it.  In fact he was downright NOT into it.  We had to convince him he was going to like it, and then when we got to the beach and got Clayton signed in, we were impressed with the number of people involved or participating in this event.  We had spent the night in Virginia Beach, having gone to the Luau the night before the event, and then went to the beach with family that had sponsored one of the oversized surf boards that the pro surfers use to carry and surf with their special doubles partners.

The event was eye opening to us, in that it provided an occasion where our son, who like others with autism may often be neglected by others, was one of the stars!  The outbursts, tics and actions often associated with those affected by autism were commonplace, as excited children everywhere were letting their feelings show.  And, on a beach where perhaps any other day these hand flaps and squeals may be met with a critical eye by those unaware of their affliction, here there was none of that.

The children were all embraced and encouraged, and the parents and family members had a chance to meet, share, socialize and cheer on their special surfers in a comfortable and loving environment.  I would be lying if I said there weren't several times that day, when my eyes didn't get "misty".

And who was taking these often-first-time surfers onto the boards?  Why, none other than professional surfers from all over the country, who come to Virginia Beach to participate in one of the oldest Surfing championships in the country -- the East Coast Surfing Championship.  My older son and daughter were looking at all these surfers with bug eyes and open mouths.  "I have his poster on my wall!", Parke and Sheldon said more than once.  And their brother got to go surfing with these guys???  Perhaps it was one of the first times that they were jealous of their brother..

When it was Clayton's turn to surf, he was given a life jacket and escorted to one of the awaiting surfers.  Many kids weren't enthusiastic about getting in the water or going surfing.  But they were lovingly taken and  "encouraged" through strong arms and kind words to the surfers, who have a natural knack for getting these kids on board -- pun intended.  And once they are in the water, it is nothing but smiles.  The anxiety disappears, and for several minutes it's all about fun and doing something they don't get the chance to do too often -- if at all.
Riding the board sponsored by SteelMasters, Clayton's smile on his first day surfing beamed brighter than the sun.

On the beach is nothing but cheering and the clicking of camera shutters as everyone tries to capture these precious and rare moments of their children having the time of their lives.  Even as I write this, it brings a lump to my throat, as I remember how special it was to feel so embraced and encouraged by the community; and to watch your child as the center of attention once -- and not just someone in the background, while everybody else does their thing.  Nope, today it was all about these special kids.  And we loved it!  And just as importantly, Clayton did too.
Once with one surfer wasn't enough for Clayton.  He wanted to do it again!  And the  kind and supportive volunteers and surfers were willing to oblige this first timer.  The smiles say it all.
The only thing as cool as the surfing, is the "Gold Medal" each of the surfers is awarded after their adventure.  Every year, Clayton wears his medal literally until bedtime that night....  This photo from 2008 shows his joy in his medal.

The following year, we made sure we did it again.  And the next.  And every year since.  Clayton has gone from hating the day (we had to bribe him with a pizza party afterwards) to now he looks forward to it, and will happily do as many rides as the surfers are willing and able to give him.
As Clayton is not one of the smaller surfers, he had some of the bigger, stronger surfers helping him.  Kilani, a surfer from Hawaii, was Clayton's pro for three years straight.  And they both remembered each other each time.
Clayton with Kilani in 2010.  We got to the point where we looked for him.
Clayton with Kilani last year... on the original SteelMaster board again.
Clayton and Kilani one more time in 2011.
Of course, once word spread of how much Clayton enjoyed his day surfing, others who love him came to see him in his glory, too.
Family that have come to watch Clayton include Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, cousins, and friends that are  "Family".  And everybody gets something out of it.  But Clayton absolutely loves his day of attention.
As Clayton has gotten older, he has enjoyed the day more and more.  And he has gotten better, too.  So even though this year it was just his mother and me that accompanied him, we were thrilled with his experience.

We got to Virginia Beach just as a hard cloudburst erupted for about 30 minutes or so.  We stayed dry until the rain stopped, and then made our way to the beach.  The next thing we knew the sun was out, and the weather turned quite beautiful.  We got Clayton signed up, went right in the line and waited our turn.  We searched the surfers for the broad, muscular body of Kilani, and were a little disappointed we didn't see him.  When it was Clayton's turn, he was appointed to a slight, wiry Californian named Justin.

"This should be interesting", I thought, as it was obvious Clayton outweighed his pro.  But with Clayton's enthusiasm and Justin's encouragement, they went out into the surf and had a great time.  Justin even encouraged Clayton to get up on his knees for several rides, highlighted by riding backwards for his last one. Even Kilani never did that....
Justin worked with Clayton, getting him on his knees for several rides.
He even got him kneeling up for a bit....
But going backwards on the last wave was the most impressive.  Way to go Justin and Clayton!
When it was all said and done, Clayton ran to get his "Gold Medal" and his lei, and we posed for photos with our new surfing hero, Justin, the boy wonder!
Justin and Clayton.  I don't think I've ever seen Clayton with a bigger smile.  It was another successful venture.
Looking at the sun and blue sky, it's hard to imagine that it had been a heavy downpour an hour earlier.  Now it was time to have lunch (thanks Chick FilA) and watch others surf... while we enjoyed sitting on the beach.
When we were ready to leave, we finally saw the original board (sponsored by family, through Steel Master), being used as a prop by one of the volunteer tents.  We got one last photo with it, and then hit the road... happy and tired.
Mama and Clayton, as we were getting ready to leave the beach.   Clayton had the most fun I think he's ever had at this year's Surfers Healing event.

When we got home, the day was far from over -- at least for Clayton.  He wore his medal until bedtime, and put on his new Surfers Healing shirt after he had his shower.  Then he put on his t-shirt again Sunday morning, and insisted on wearing it -- and his gold medal again -- to church.

No, that medal, and all 5 of his others, will lose their luster (but not their place of honor in his room) long before we lose our memories of the joy that so many families get to share.  Special families, with special kids.  And these special kids, at least for one day, are stars on the beach.

Thank you, Surfers Healing.  There are families all over the country that appreciate your efforts -- and the break from the day to day grind that you provide, at least for one day each summer....

Until next time,

Surf ON!

(Or Surf's up.)


P.S.  Again, I want to give you access to the link, so that you can learn more about this organization, its founder, and all the good that it does.  Thank you.

Going to the V.B Surfers Healing Facebook site, I found these photos of Clayton taken by someone with a "GoPro" type waterproof camera.
The view from the water, as Justin and Clayton wait for a wave....
While they were waiting, they saw us waving encouragement, so Clayton waved back.
Justin then tried to help Clayton give us the "Hang Loose" sign.
Hang Loose, Clayton!

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