For most people, seeing is believing. But for blind surfer Derek Rabelo, faith in the invisible transcends fear of the unknown. Rabelo gained worldwide recognition while surfing the biggest waves of Hawaii, and he joined visually impaired kids learning to surf during Indo Jax Surf Charities camp at Wrightsville Beach last week.
“I’m so glad to be here. We are giving them the opportunity to live their dreams,” Rabelo said. “I don’t have words to describe this project. Indo Jax’s school is doing a perfect job.”
Rabelo started surfing on the shores of his native Brazil. His surf coaches believed he could do anything despite his blindness, he said.
“They came into my life in the exact moment and I’m so blessed by God to have them in my life,” he said.
Rabelo now travels around the United States promoting the film “Beyond Sight: The Derek Rabelo Story” and inspiring other kids with disabilities to continue to dream big.
Pastor Mike Ashcraft, senior pastor at Port City Community Church, said Rabelo is proof that visually impaired kids have no limits.
“The whole idea is to help kids do things they didn’t think they could do,” he said. “Not based on what they can see, but based on what they believe.”
Kevin Curtis, outreach director at Walking on Water, the Christian ministry that produced Rabelo’s film, explained the connection between surfing and faith.
“There is a oneness that you feel, but it also leads you to some place to think a little deeper about, ‘Where did this wave come from?’” he said. “I would say most surfers realize some kind of spiritual connection.”
Jack Viorel, owner of Indo Jax Surf Charities and school, said the camps are not about evangelism, but that his belief in God drives him to help others.
“I’ve always had faith,” he said, “but that’s not why I got started. Now it is the purpose. … We’re using the water and we’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
Viorel first worked with special needs children as a teacher in southern California. His was the only classroom in the district with a wheelchair ramp, he said, so he taught many children who were disabled.
“I really loved teaching the underdog,” he said.
After moving to Wrightsville Beach, Viorel realized surfing could be therapeutic for medically fragile and underprivileged youth. The first charity camp was for children born with HIV.
“I started a surf camp to pay for the charity. Now here we are and I’m just along for the ride,” he said. “We do about 12 to 15 free outreach camps for medically fragile and special needs children.”
The camp taught children like Maddox Dean, a young participant from Asheville, N.C., to keep standing up whenever he falls down. His mother, Amy Dean, said the volunteers were impressive.
“We will be back every year,” she said.
This lesson in perseverance impacted the instructors as well. Nick Maciel and Craig Jacobs visited from California to volunteer with the camp.
“They learn how to overcome their own struggles and what they need to do to ride,” Maciel said.
Jacobs added, “Their self-esteem improves so much.”
During a camp event at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort July 17, Maddie Ashcraft, surf instructor and event coordinator, said she could never give the kids and much as they give her.
“Personally, I think they’ve impacted me more than I’ve impacted them,” she said.
Keller Johnson, vice president of education at the Helen Keller Foundation, praised Indo Jax’s charity program.
“This place inspires me,” she said. “The Helen Keller Foundation chose to support Indo Jax because … we believe this program is making a difference.”
Indo Jax Surf Charities is a 501C3 nonprofit. Indo Jax Surf School is a for profit entity.