Tofino’s uniquely gorgeous waves and uniquely gorgeous culture makes it the perfect setting for a uniquely gorgeous surf camp.
The community is the proud host of Surf’s Up, an annual surf experience for children and families living with autism.
“We do it for the families and for the kids, basically just to get away from all the stresses of therapy and all the eyes; being judged and whispers behind your back,” Dennis Nerpio, who founded the annual weekend surf event in 2012, told the Westerly News.
“It takes that all away from the families and from the kids and they just come to Tofino to have a fun time with smiles and laughs...Everyone is the same and they’re all included. There’s no judgement.”
Nerpio launched the camp in 2012 after sharing a life-changing experience with his son who had just been diagnosed with autism at the age of 4.
“We decided to go to Tofino just to get away from everything and within a half- hour of being in the water and getting that wetsuit on, putting a board under him and pushing him into that wave, he was up surfing with the biggest smile on his face and the claps from the strangers on the beach made it so much more special,” Nerpio said.
“We looked at each other and there was an instant connection. I found something that him and I could do together and I wanted to share that same kind of feeling with other families.”
The camp runs a 2-1 ratio with each child working with a surf instructor and a support worker, according to Nerpio.
He added both the support worker and surf instructor receive a behavioural profile of the child they’ll be working with in order to cater each experience to each youth and behaviour consultants are also on hand to assist when needed.
He said surfing offers opportunities for children to enjoy, and connect with, the ocean at their own pace.
“You can be an individual and do what you want,” he said.
“Whatever you want to do in the water, that’s what you’re doing because it’s an individual sport of self-expression.”
The fifth annual Surf’s Up event was held in September and 56 families attended.
“I got a lot of good feedback from families and heard a lot of nice stories that were really touching,” Nerpio said.
“I heard from a family who’s son has had difficulties and this was the first time they truly, genuinely, saw him smile...They were a little nervous, but when he got in the water he didn’t want to get out. It’s cool to see that and it’s cool to see families laughing and smiling and that there’s no stress on them.”
He said the event connects families and has created the type of community he wanted to find when his son was diagnosed.
“You just want someone to talk to. But, you want to talk to somebody who’s going to understand; not someone who’s going to listen and then tell you something like ‘It’s going to be OK.’ You want somebody that understands the same kind of thing you’re going through,” he said.
“There really wasn’t a lot of that and I felt kind of alone at the time. There wasn’t enough of something that would take families together and be able to bond or create a community. For me, it was sharing that stoke that I had with my son but,, as this event grew more and more and exceeded my expectations, it became a community.”
He added the families form valuable relationships.
“They meet other families that they can instantly connect with because they know what each other is going through,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that they talk about autism, but they just let their kids do what they want to do knowing those other parents aren’t going to say anything because they walk the same path that they do so they instantly connect.”
Nerpio said it’s important to include siblings.
“Siblings are always included, they’ll never be left out,” he said. “They’re the unsung heroes of the family.”
He said the setting Tofino provides is a big part of the experience.
“It’s a magical place,” he said. “It’s a place where nature envelopes you and just takes over. You’re surrounded by nature and the ocean and the people that are there are accepting and smiling and want to help you out.”
He added that he’s already planning next year’s event in Tofino.