Flagler Beach 10th annual First Coast Surf and Beach Festival draws 200 participants with autism, 337 volunteers
News-Journal - 8/24/2019
FLAGLER BEACH -- Brennen Melton sat on the front of a bright blue surfboard, her 3-year-old son Aiden standing behind her, clinging to her back as the water hit the shore, splashing water on their backs.
"It's so great, they get to learn how to swim, surf and be around other people," Melton said of her three sons at the surfing event. "It's so awesome for the kids and they love it."
Melton's sons were just three of 200 children with autism that participated in the 10th annual First Coast Surf and Beach Festival in Flagler Beach on Saturday. They traveled from Titusville for the opportunity to participate in the day's festivities which included free lunch, surfing, vendors and fun volunteers dressed as pirates.
"It's something they can learn from and boosts their self-esteem," Melton said.
The festival is put on by Surfers for Autism, a non-profit founded in 2008 by South Florida surfers who realized surfing was a great therapy for children with autism. The first event was held in Deerfield Beach. This year they are hosting events in 10 Florida cities.
Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term that refers to challenges with social, behavioral and communication skills. While some may be high-functioning some may not even be able to speak.
For the event, 337 volunteers came to help out. Children surf in groups, with three to five volunteers per child depending on their age and abilities. Some will stand on the board while others will sit while a volunteer rides the back of the board. In either case, there are at least two volunteers at the wave break and one at the shoreline.
Moose Brown, CEO of Surfers for Autism, started with the organization as a volunteer. Although he doesn't have a child with autism himself, he saw the impact that he and the other volunteers had on these children and knew this was his calling.
"The best part is seeing the breakthroughs for these children and families," he said. "When you interact with children that are nonverbal and they talk it's amazing. You literally see miracles on the beach."
For Marytza Sanz's 9-year-old grandson Santiago Susi, who has been attending the event since he was 5, the first time he said "water" was at this event.
"He gets calm when he comes to this," she said, watching him glide to the shore on the board, surrounded by five volunteers. "We do this every year and we follow them around Florida."
Sanz, who drove down from Orlando, said it's hard to find events like these for children with autism but that it's worth it to travel around because the water has such an impact on them.
"We started at a time when he was aggressive and would bite the volunteers," she said. "They never gave up on him. They have the patience and want to make it work."
Brown said every event they host has a line of participants down the beach due to a lack of services for children with autism.
"I hear their concerns and needs," Brown said. "I get to see such really awesome kids. I look at them as having superpowers."
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Angela and Donnie Clance have brought their 15-year-old son Nigel from Keyston Heights to the event for the past five years.
"He has so much fun every time," Angela Clance said. "He comes out of the water clapping and cheering."
They said coming to these events helps get Nigel get out of his shell. He'll walk up to people and say "hey, hello, how are you?" something he doesn't do on a regular basis.
"It is amazing to have an event where parents can come to relax," Angela Clance said, explaining that most of the time she's on edge hoping her son won't have a meltdown. "Everybody is taken care of. The water calms him so I don't have to worry at an event like this."
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