Over 100 kids hit the waves off Cox Bay over the weekend at the sixth annual Surf’s Up Surf Camp for children with autism. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Surf camp in Tofino connects families living with autism

“This event started because of my son, who was diagnosed at four-and-a-half.”

Inspiration beamed through Cox Bay’s grey skies last weekend as the sixth annual Surf’s Up Surf Camp for children with autism filled the beach with heartwarming vibes and high-fives.

The free two-day surf event that ran from Sept. 9-10, sent children and families living with autism into the waves together with each young surfer assisted by both a surf instructor and behavioural interventionist.

“The kids were awesome, high energy and super excited…I’m pretty tired, so they wore me out, which is good,” local surf instructor Lee Appleby told the Westerly News during the camp’s last day on Sunday. “They were a little timid, a little scared, of the waves but, with the behavioural interventionist and the surf instructor, they were really comfortable. They’re in wetsuits and lifejackets so they’re kept safe and as long as they’re smiling and looking like they’re having fun, we keep pushing them out.”

Appleby said he jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at the event and help kids explore the ocean.

“Without even a breath, I was on board,” he said. “I’ve been teaching kids outdoor skills for many years so this is right up my alley and it’s always good to give back to the community.”

Allanna Harte volunteered to support the camp’s families on the beach and help lifeguards monitor the water.

“I have a background in working with children with special needs. So, for me to be able to volunteer today and see these opportunities for the families and the children is quite amazing. It’s encouraging and inspiring,” she said. “It’s great seeing the families and the children all come together, smile, and get the opportunity to get out on the water and be able to have that joy and excitement that they don’t get to get everyday. To be able to see the children light up, maybe also face a few fears that are out there as well, and be able to get out there on that board and get in the water; it’s been a rocking day.”

Surf’s Up was launched by Surrey B.C. local Dennis Nerpio, who first introduced the smile-inducing annual event in 2012 as a way to bring families dealing with ASD together.

“This event started because of my son, who was diagnosed at four and a half,” he said adding he initially felt isolated by the news.

“When he got the diagnosis, autism was new to us…We just didn’t know what was going to come of it. I knew our lives were going to change a little bit, or a lot, things we were going to have to do were different than other families with typical kids.”

Shortly after his son was diagnosed, Nerpio took him on a surf trip to Tofino and was delighted with the result.

“We got to Tofino, got some boards and wetsuits on, and within 30 minutes he was up catching a wave on his own. When he turned around, he had the biggest smile on his face that I hadn’t seen really ever. It was kind of surreal,” Nerpio said. “That moment there changed our perspective on how we were going to take autism on and that feeling we had and the stoke that we had: I wanted to share that with other families.”

Nerpio took his idea to Surf Canada president Dom Domic who helped get the ball rolling and, a little over a year later, the first Rip Curl Surf’s Up event was held.

“We had our first event in 2012 at South Chesterman and it was with 12 kids with ASD and their siblings,” Nerpio said adding siblings were important to include.

“We always include the siblings because they’re the unsung heroes of the family. They get left out of a lot of the things their siblings with ASD do.”

A total of 24 kids participated in 2012’s inaugural event and Nerpio has been thrilled to see the camp grow exponentially with over 100 kids participating this year.

“Were stoked bringing these families together,” he said adding the weekend has created valuable connections and helped build a community of families who can learn from, and lean on, each other rather than facing the struggles of ASD on their own.

“It can be a lonely journey…You’re not alone. We understand what you’re going through,” he said adding he loves watching bonds made on the beach.

“I wanted to share that feeling and create a community with the other families. They get to come out and enjoy Tofino and the people around them and there’s no judgement…It’s coming together and gelling and high-fiving and enjoying hugs and laughs and tears of joy. That’s what this community is about, getting together in one big group hug.”

He said the West Coast has provided tremendous support for the event.

“The surf instructors and the community have all come together. They truly enjoy this weekend because it’s different than other weekends that they experience here,” he said. “It takes a village. This is it. The village of Tofino and the West Coast that’s coming together for my community, the autism community…That community gets stronger when everyone is together for the same thing; for everybody’s kids.”

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