There's something about surfing.
The sport of beach boys and surfer girls has a way of bringing joy into the lives of kids with disabilities, and this was put on display Saturday morning at Vanderbilt Beach. About a thousand volunteers, surfers, kids and young adults with autism and related conditions, and spectators came out as part of Surfers for Autism's inaugural Naples Beach Surf Festival.
"This all started when a pro surfer noticed how different his autistic son was in the water," said Surfers for Autism founding member Jeff Adams. "The ocean is a great equalizer. And it's not just while they're here. The kids' teachers and therapists say the kids are the calmest they've seen them" after trying surfing.
On Saturday, between two and four surfer volunteers shepherded each kid, helping them get accustomed to apaddleboard, steadying it, and putting a paddle into their hands. The young surfers did a combination of standing on the board for classic surfing, lying on the board to paddle it, and standing to paddle in the trendy paddle boarding that has become all the rage for local boarders.
Hannah Kandel of Naples, 20, who deals with autism every day, loved the chance to get out in the waves, and high-fived her helpers after taking her first turn on the board.
"This really is exciting for her, trying something new. She's been looking forward to it all week," said Mary Lee Kandel, Hannah's mother. Hannah high-fived her helpers and family members as she came out of the water, and was ready to go back for more.
Nathan and Nancy Dearborn brought Andrew Warner to the beach for the event, and watched proudly as he rode the waves — or actually wavelets. This was the Naples beach, after all.
"Look at him, he's doing great," said Nathan. "Andrew's not even able to speak, but they've got him standing up, forwards and sideways. He's catching his own waves." Nathan Dearborn has worked as a surfing instructor in Costa Rica, and said the waves at Vanderbilt Beach were perfect for the day's purpose.
They would have been even more perfect without the unwanted guests who showed up. Thousands of dead fish from a red tide event drifted offshore, and periodically washed up on the beach. Event organizers picked up the small white fish off the sand several times, but more kept appearing.
Usually the floating fish were just here and there, but at times the currents pushed together a barrier of decomposing fish that had participants avoiding the area and making feeble jokes about sushi and fish fries. The beach was crowded with families, and the surfer volunteers who stood out with their bronzed bodies.
The Surf Festival is high-energy, with music pumping, sponsor tents, and kids and volunteers heading out into the water and then giving way to the next session. The event included a raffle, with prizes up to a cruiser bike and a high-end Ron Jon paddleboard signed by CJ Hobgood, donated by Quinn Boards surf shop. Organizers also singled out the Ritz-Carlton Naples, and Sun Bums suntan lotion as key sponsors.
Volunteer Kat Luchesi of Paddle Up Fitness worked with Alexandra Cruz, 18, who didn't let Down's syndrome stop her from having a great time. She positively glowed with delight on her colorful surfboard, and if she slipped into the water, was ready to climb right back on and try again. She came across the state from Hollywood with her family for the event.
Surfers for Autism is based in Boca Raton, and has gone from a local charity in 2007 to hosting Surf Festivals around the world. They began the year with a surf day in Australia, and will finish in Puerto Rico in mid-November.
First, though, the group has another Southwest Florida event planned, on Saturday, Nov. 3, in Fort Myers Beach. To learn more, bring your children, or volunteer, go to www.surfersforautism.org.
Sebastian Sabater, age 6, posed a little extra challenge to his handlers. He loves the water so much he can't wait to get back in. To him, the surfboard worked great as a diving board, and as soon as volunteers Mauricio Guzman and Harmony Schultz got him standing up, he would plop right back into the Gulf. Like all the children, though, he looked to be having a great time.