A group of 48 excited families are headed to Tofino this weekend to participate in the third annual Surfs Up day to hang-ten for children and families living with autism.
The two-day surfing event began as a father son surfing trip when Dennis Nerpio took his son on a surf-vacation to Tofino shortly after his son had been diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. "When you have a child with autism, that first diagnosis you go through a period kind of like a mourning phase," Nerpio said. "You picture your child to be in a different place and then when you get that diagnosis you know it’s going to be a different path."
After going through the emotions of the diagnosis, Nerpioâ€”a frequent surf-visitor to Tofino since 1992â€”decided to take his son on a vacation.
"We decided to take a trip over to Tofino and just try some surfing and get him in the water; he wanted to try it so we went," Nerpio said. "Within half an hour he was up surfing and there was the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face…He loved it."
He put a video camera on his son’s board so he could watch his son’s face in the surf and was delighted to see the reactions he was having.
"When I see it, it just puts the biggest smile on my face. I see things that I don’t see normally with him," Nerpio said.
"The reactions he gets and the smiles he gets that’s all candid… The feeling I get is an overwhelming sense of enjoyment and it just fulfills me."
His son’s stoke immediately inspired Nerpio to share the experience with other families and as soon as he arrived back on the mainland he began hashing out a plan to launch a surf camp for
children and families living with autism.
Rip Curl Pro Tofino jumped on board, and the Lower Mainlandbased organization Harmony House was also stoked to get involved.
Long Beach Surf Shop signed on to provide all the necessary gear and Long Beach Lodge agreed to provide the setting.
Participation has doubled every year since then going from 12 to 24 to this year’s 48 families. Each child’s siblings are invited to surf as well.
Harmony House provides volunteer behavioural interventionists who help the children safely transition from the beach, to the water to their surf instructor.
A strict 1-1-1 ratio is kept with each child receiving a surf instructor and behavioural interventionist and each interventionist is given a behavioural profile of the child they will be working with prior to the camp kicking off.
"It’s unique that we can individualize it for each child as they come along," Nerpio said.
This year’s camp will welcome 48 families over a two-day span and, with siblings included, as many as 70 kids will be hitting the surf.
Nerpio said the event provides valuable networking opportunities for families.
"We don’t promote surfing as a form of therapy at all we’re just there to promote a fun day and a day to also network," he said.
Nerpio said along with attending the camp each year, he and his son try to make it out to Tofino at least three times a year to surf.
"I’m just happy that he loves a sport that I love as well which is surfing and it’s a lot better because I get to do it with him," he said. "It makes it that much more enjoyable because I get to share something in the water with him."
He said his son is also into snowboarding and skateboarding.
"I try to encourage him with a lot of things that keeps him outdoors," he said.
As the parents of other children on the autism spectrum see photos of his son’s outdoor adventures, he becomes an unintentional role model for children like him because parents realize their children can have the same experiences he’s having.
"He’s touched them in a way that he doesn’t know," he said.
Fundraising for the surf camp is done year round but accommodation costs are still a barrier, so local accommodation
providers are encouraged to help the annual event out.
Anyone interested in helping future Surfs Up camps can find more information at www.ripcurlsurfsup. com.