Momentous cheers and emboldened smiles filled Cox Bay last weekend as the SUPA Society hosted its eighth annual Surf’s Up for Autism event in Tofino.
“He’s in absolute heaven,” Heidi Davis said of her nine-year-old son Rylan on Sunday. “He was in the water all day yesterday and he’ll probably be in the water all day today.”
Rylan was one of 70 kids on the autism spectrum who hit the waves during the two-day event and Davis told the Westerly News the support he received from the Surf’s Up crew allowed him to bask in a non-judgmental environment where he could learn and thrive at his own pace.
“He’s very athletic and smart, but he’s been in lots of different sports and lessons and teams and he hasn’t been successful because he’s had such a hard time and hasn’t had the supports he needs,” she said. “He’s had a lot of trouble getting supports obtained in school and a lot of other areas and this was something he could be successful at and actually be proud of himself…It’s an amazing opportunity. He just felt free. He got to feel proud of himself. That’s the most important thing, you see the smiles on their faces when they’re out there and coming in, there’s something they can be proud of.”
She added this was her family’s first Surf’s Up experience and she was awed by how much work the SUPA Society puts in to making it a success.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “It’s really positive and really successful…There’s no other opportunity like this for kids like Rylan.”
The Surf’s Up weekend maintains a two-to-one ratio on the water with each participant teamed up with a surf instructor and support worker.
Lauren White, a surf instructor with Tofino Surf Adventures, told the Westerly she had heard how “amazing” the event is to experience from her colleagues who had participated in past years and she was delighted to score a spot on this year’s team of instructors.
“It’s been super, super, awesome seeing how excited the kids are and how far they come,” she said. “Some of them go from being afraid of the water and the ocean to catching waves like a pro by the end of it and it’s just so awesome to see the pure excitement on their faces and them smiling and having a great time.”
Surf’s Up For Autism was launched by Dennis Nerpio after he was inspired by a surf trip he had enjoyed with his son, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, in 2012.
Nerpio beamed on the beach as he told the Westerly that this year’s event welcomed 70 kids on the spectrum as well as roughly 50 siblings.
“It’s just been an awesome weekend,” he said. “I judge everything based on the smiles on the kids and everyone’s smiling…They’re doing something they’ve never done before.”
He said the event offers an important, uplifting, experience for both the kids and their families to take a trip they might not otherwise think possible.
“Everyone knows it’s a struggle. We’re all on the same path, but the journeys are a little different for each of us,” he said. “These things, like surfing, [parents] wouldn’t even think about doing and they’re just stoked that they’re able to experience surfing and we’re able to share it with them.”
He added the West Coast communities have been unwavering in their support for the event.
“They’re not judgmental. They’re just here to support us. Open arms is what it is. This community is just open arms,” he said.
The event is made possible by numerous sponsorships and partnerships, including the Canucks Autism Network and Nerpio was thrilled to receive a new donation this year from Native Shoes, which provided each participant with custom SUPA Society kicks.
“We’re super proud to support Surf’s Up,” the Canucks Autism Network’s vice president of programs, training and community engagement Stephanie Jull told the Westerly.
“It’s just amazing to see the kids in the water all weekend having success and families smiling and parents seeing their kids do things they didn’t even think were possible. And, the fact that the siblings get to participate as well and the whole family gets to come and enjoy the weekend is so amazing. We’re so happy to be here.”
Jaime Emerson brought her three sons Kolton, 7, Keagan, 9 and Kalem 17, from Abbotsford and said one of her favourite aspects of the event is that siblings are included.
“For families with children who are on the autism spectrum, a lot of the times your whole lifestyle and the things that you do are orientated to what that child can handle, so it makes it very difficult sometimes for their siblings,” she said. “It’s nice that the child with autism goes first and then, afterwards, it’s all about the siblings; it makes them feel just as special.”
This was the first time her family had participated in Surf’s Up.
“We usually don’t do things as a family unplanned because we have to make sure that Kalem can handle them…For families with autism, it’s very hard to get out and do things as a family where everyone is accepted,” she said. “So when you come together and it’s just a big group of people that all know what different adversities you face and you’re able to overcome, it’s just nice to be in an environment that’s supportive.”
She added that she was impressed with how the event was organized, including receiving behaviour assessments from each participant so the team can put a strategy together to make sure everyone has a good time.
“The Surfs Up team here have been fabulous and everything’s been laid out for us,” she said. “It was just amazing because they catered to what my son needed, but they also were able to include us as a family with other families.”
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