By Jon Blauvelt
A group of local children with autism had a chance to experience the fun of surfing this week, as a number of local organizations came together to host the 10th annual Riding the Wave of Autism Surf Camp.
Nearly 30 children participated in the camp, which was held June 19 and 20 at Neptune Beach and organized by the HEAL Foundation (Healing Every Autistic Life) in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach. Approximately 50 volunteers, including employees from Sunrise Surf Shop and other members of the local surf community, attended each day to help with the camp. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles even made a special appearance to assist the group’s efforts in the water.
The camp provides participants with the opportunity to surf, paddleboard, kayak and boogie board. The kids receive individual guidance and support from the instructors, many of whom have been volunteering at the camp since its inception. Joe Matacia, the camp’s volunteer coordinator, has been working with an autistic and blind boy named Max for 10 years. At each camp, Matacia said, Max makes marked improvements, picking up right where he left off the previous year.
“It was like he was on a wave with you five minutes ago,” said Matacia. “These kids love the ocean. The camp gives them an opportunity they may not have every day.”
HEAL Foundation Founder Leslie Weed echoed Matacia’s comments, saying the camp provides the families and kids with a unique experience.
“Watching the parents see their child accomplish something and to be able to cheer them on…it’s very wonderful,” said Weed. “The surfing community is a good pairing for the kids with autism because surfers are laid back. They love sharing being in the water.”
Founded in 2004, the HEAL Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports organizations serving those with autism spectrum disorders. The organization has awarded nearly $2 million dollars in grants since its inception to help provide summer camps, sports leagues, support groups, educational enhancements (iPads for classrooms), educational seminars, recreational and social events, service dogs and more.