Surfers Healing creates peace and community for families affected by autism

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As Camp Lejeune’s Sally Tumanuvao watched Surfers Healing volunteer Justin Camacho lead her five-year-old son Naseri into Wrightsville Beach’s choppy surf, she heard her son call out anxiously for her. Then, she said, “A calm came over him. It was just wonderful.”

Photo by Emmy Errante Surfers Healing volunteer Justin Camacho rides a wave with participant Dylan Butler from Fort Bragg during the annual Surfers Healing event at Wrightsville Beach Aug. 22.

Throughout the annual 2-day Surfers Healing event this week, hundreds of other participants experienced similar moments of peace and camaraderie in an event that brought together families affected by autism.

Eleven-year volunteer and coordinator Nikki Bascome said watching the volunteers interact and catch waves with the children gave her chills, and fellow volunteer Missy Miller agreed, saying, “It’s magical.”

Israel and Danielle Paskowitz created Surfers Healing in 1996 after witnessing the soothing effect the ocean had on their son, who was diagnosed with autism as a child. This year, Wrightsville Beach was the 14th location out of 22 at which they’ve held the free events.

While Surfers Healing was created for the children, Bascome said the experience is rewarding for the volunteers and families as well.

Autism can tear a family apart, she said, but Surfers Healing not only brings together individual families, it also bonds the autism community: parents, siblings and grandparents with similar struggles and experiences.

“The parents don’t usually ever get a break,” she said.

Photo by Emmy Errante Surfers Healing volunteers surf with participants during the annual Surfers Healing event at Wrightsville Beach Aug. 22.

But during Surfers Healing, they were able to stand together on shore, cheering or snapping photographs while their child rode waves tandem-style with a Surfers Healing volunteer.

Sally Tumanuvao, whose son was a first-time Surfers Healing participant, said she felt emotional “being amongst other parents who have children with special needs.”

“It’s just a moment where I don’t feel alone,” she said.

She was also impressed by the support she felt from the local volunteers—some who came from as far away as Virginia Beach—and traveling Surfers Healing volunteers, like Camacho.

“Just to see how [Camacho] connected with my son as he took him out, it was wonderful,” she said.

Camacho, a 6-year Surfers Healing volunteer, said he saw nearly all the participants’ anxiety change to peace as he helped them through the choppy breakers into the calm deeper waters, where they could either paddle for waves or just lie on the board.

“That’s when you can really dial in with the kid,” he said.

And at that point, Tumanuvao said, the children “are just, for a day, regular children. Just surfing.”

Photo by Emmy Errante Surfers Healing volunteers and participants wait for waves to come during the annual Surfers Healing event at Wrightsville Beach Aug. 22.

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