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Wrightsville Beach
Saturday, January 28, 2023

Surfers Healing has kids, volunteers ‘smiling all day’

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Courage, triumph, fear and glee were all mixed in the waves this week on Wrightsville Beach as kids who have often been told they’re “different” were able to come together and experience surfing in a safe environment.

Surfers Healing, a traveling surf camp that supports kids with autism, made their annual trip to Wrightsville Beach and brought a team of experienced surfers from across the globe to hug, paddle with, carry, fist bump and encourage the kids on Monday and Tuesday. In addition, the beach was swarming with local volunteers who came out to support in a multitude of ways.

“It’s really just amazing the way the organization takes care of everything,” said Gina Martin, a first time volunteer with Surfers Healing. “There are the instructors out there who are solely responsible for the child, and when they come up here to the shore, I jump in to grab the board.”

Martin served as a board catcher, one of many roles needed to support the endeavor that gets these kids into the water, some for the first time ever.

“I haven’t stopped smiling all day,” Martin said. “Sometimes it is these kids’ first time in the ocean.”

It can even be the first time that the children are exposed to a fun-centered environment with other children with disabilities. This was the case for 9-year-old Xander Loutsis from Jacksonville, NC.

“I always tell my son that he’s special, and not everybody is special like him,” said Loutsis’ mother, Renee Fitzgerald. “Here, he gets to be around children who are special like him.”

For some, however, this week wasn’t their first time in this kind of environment. The Rodriguez family, traveling in from Camp Lejeune, with their two sons Anthony, 6, and Michael, 3, came out last year for the event.

Originally from Los Angeles, the family was first stationed in North Carolina three years ago.  Six months into their time here, they were told that Anthony had been diagnosed with Autism, and later Michael began showing signs of sensory overload and developmental delays.

“Last year, I had Michael put on the vest and he freaked out.  The combination of wet and dry was too much for him,” said Arianna Rodriguez, the boys’ mother. “This year, his dad is here and he can convince him to do anything.”

Arianna and her husband, Fred Rodriguez, stood on the beach cheering and filming as their two sons surfed, sometimes even on the same wave.

The youngest, Michael, was hesitant to even put his feet on the board because of the sensation on his toes, said Arianna Rodriguez. Over the course of the session, Michael was carried riding waves and eventually stood his bare feet on the board, feeling the full power of riding the wave.

“It’s incredible to watch,” Fred Rodriguez said. “You see the moment changing their life once they experience the wave.”

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