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Surfers Healing organization provides camp for autistic children

8/15/13 | By Clara Vaughn, Staff Writer/Ocean City Today

OCEAN CITY–Rory Stephens is 7 years old, likes gymnastics and swimming, and has incredible balance. She also has autism.

Rory will join 200 other children in the water today to surf Ocean City’s waves, thanks to the nonprofit Surfers Healing. The camp has brought a day of music, food and crafts on the beach to autistic children and their families in Ocean City for the past four years.

“It’s so far out of the realm of something I ever thought I’d see Rory do,” her mother Nora Fitzpatrick said. “I haven’t been this excited about anything I’ve tried with her in a long time.”

Surfers Healing started 13 years ago, when former pro surfer Izzy Paskowitz hit on an idea. He paddled out with his son Isaiah, diagnosed with autism at age 3, on the front of his board while he steered from the back, and the two spent the day surfing.

Seeing the profound effect surfing had on Isaiah, Paskowitz and his wife Danielle founded Surfers Healing, which now hosts 14 camps across the United States and Canada for 3,500 children each year. Pro and ex-pro surfer-volunteers paddle out with children of all ages and help them balance and catch waves.

“What we hope for is that people who are just finding out about their child’s diagnosis will come to our event… as they’re trying to figure out how autism is going to affect their families,” Surfers Healing Director Jeff Ekberg said.

The camp provides autism resources on the beach, and is free for people of all ages, “from 3 years to 60 years,” Ekberg said.

The camp does more than give children the chance to surf, said Ocean City’s camp co-director Kat O’Brien, whose son Connor first rode waves with Surfers Healing when he was 4 years old.

“His social skills just made a huge jump. He started engaging conversations after he went surfing,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know what it did, but it made something click.”

It’s also a day for parent’s to relax.

“Being a parent of a child with autism, sometimes everyone is not so understanding… People judge and they get annoyed. But this is a day to enjoy on the beach,” O’Brien said.

Campers will arrive on the beach in front of the Castle in the Sand Hotel near 37th Street around 8:30 a.m. today, Thursday. They’ll start their day with a Hawaiian prayer circle, where everyone holds hands or touches shoulders, then hit the waves in half-hour shifts with the volunteers. The last group will return around 3 p.m.

Ekberg encourages anyone who wants to attend to come and cheer on the youngsters.

“I think all autism parents can relate to stumbling upon something that can give our children some happiness,” Fitzpatrick said.

Visit www.surfershealing.org to learn more about Surfers Healing.

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