Surfing Sparks Sea Change for Special-Needs Kids 9

A Walk On Water provides children with special needs the chance to do exactly that—walk on water.

“Our hand-picked team brings together local communities, businesses and watermen; all working with a single goal: help others experience the thrill of surfing and the therapeutic effects of the ocean,” says Alexandra Power, development director.

A Walk On Water serves L.A., Ventura, Orange, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Diego counties, as well as East Coast locations. The charitable endeavor is open to all, and “gladly welcomes anyone who has special needs or disability, or could benefit from surf therapy,” Power says.

Over the years, volunteers have witnessed numerous positive changes in the athletes they serve, including altered behavior, “going from scared, unsure and even combative to calm, happy and laughing,” Power notes.

Athletes also tend to improve their focus in other aspects of life, thanks to surf therapy. For instance, “parents report their child shows improved effort and results in the classroom,” Power says.

Strength and stability is also honed. “Many athletes who attend multiple events show an improved ability to stand up and balance on the surfboard, and it has translated to improved motor skills and walking. Some of the athletes have even advanced to being able to catch and surf their own waves,” Power says.

A Walk On Water was inspired by a group of watermen’s desire to dispel the stigma of surfing as a solitary, non-inclusive sport. Born out of a common goal to bring the powerful physical and emotional benefits of surfing to those in need, the nonprofit was founded in the summer of 2012 on the west side of Los Angeles.

The idea for this new surf therapy organization formed in the mind of Founder Pat Notaro, III, whose late father was a celebrated waterman and film industry executive with a passion for giving back to children in need.

“His life of service was not lost on our founder, who would come to donate his time to organizations like Surfers Healing, THERASurf, Life Rolls On and many more,” Power says.

It was through volunteering with these original surf therapy organizations that Notaro came to meet the men and women who would help make his dream a reality.

Ari Markow, Jason Logan, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, Laura Rubin, Sean Swentek and Steven Lippman are just a few of the driving forces behind what is now considered the fastest-growing surf therapy nonprofit in America.

To date, A Walk On Water has provided surf therapy to more than 2,500 children and adults with special needs or disability, with a stated goal of growing their services by 25% year over year, ultimately reaching every individual in need across the globe.

Agatha Wallen, whose two sons are autistic, was introduced to A Walk On Water when her oldest son, Mason, was 7. At the time, he struggled with any sensation that was new to him.

“I knew it would be nearly impossible to get a wetsuit on him,” Agatha recalls. “He was kicking, hitting and screaming the whole time. But with help from the very patient wetsuit staff; it took five of them…we got it on him.”

When Mason was placed on a surfboard, he was put in the care of Pat Notaro, who Wallen refers to as an “expert surfer/autism child whisperer.”

“As my tantrum child was being paddled off out to sea, in a hail of cheer and applause from everyone around, I could see him transform,” Wallen remembers. “My son became calmer as they moved with the water. I saw his body relax as he stretched out on the long surfboard. My child regained his composure and started to participate.”

When Agatha saw her son coming closer to shore, he was standing up tall with only one hand holding onto Pat’s wetsuit.

“There was a big ear to ear smile on his face,” she says. “As he walked onto the sand he did his signature stiffening of both hand and body in excitement and said, ‘I want to go again mommy’. ”

The community can help A Walk On Water by raising funds so more therapy days can be held, Power says.

“Our goal is to continue to give transformative experiences to children with special needs. We want to extend the reach to more communities throughout America and internationally.”

For more information about A Walk On Water, visit AWalkOnWater.org or call 805.991.AWOW (2969).