If you’re any kind of experienced surfer, you’ve got a highly specialized set of skills. You can paddle a thin piece of foam through the ocean on the most extreme days, lock into that kinetic energy and navigate yourself, while standing upright, parallel to the shore. There are few other instances in life where those skills are valuable. Perhaps a surf instructor or pro surf coach. But despite your best efforts on Instagram, you are not a pro surfer.
So what else can you apply those skills to in the real world? Pretty much nothing.
Surfing is a pretty self-centered pursuit. All the late takeoffs, paddle training, amateur meteorology, wave etiquette, travel, and studying surfcraft is all useless to everyone but our own Instagram feeds. There’s really only one way we can translate all those years of waveriding experience that can benefit others … you’re just probably not doing it yet.
Every year, there are countless opportunities for surfers to give back through the dozens of surf-based volunteer groups that help get people who are facing some sort of obstacle into waves. From people recovering from addiction to cystic fibrosis, wounded veterans, autistic children, spinal cord injury victims, inner city kids or paraplegic athletes, there are non-profits that see the value in sharing that simple joy of surging toward the beach on a wave – something many spoiled surfers may have forgotten about as soon as we learned to wiggle our butts down the line.
On a recent summer day, I went down to a Waves of Impact event in my hometown. They hold free surf experiences for special needs children, as well as wounded veterans.
There were dozens of kids facing all types of disabilities, and a fleet of massive boards designed to hold two people. I grabbed a kid named Cole who was non-verbal and we rode a bunch of whitewater rodeos to the inside. Each time we hit the sandbar, Cole started wading right back into the ocean without a second thought.
“We try to find a lot of these outreaches, but this is really fantastic for him because he loves the water,” Cole’s mother, Jackie Gownley told ASN. “We heard about this event last year and heard how quick it fills up. We called the Waves of Impact people and they told us to just keep checking the website in the early summer to see when this would be. We checked every day in June until we saw it announced and signed up right away.”
Of the 7 billion people on the planet, consider how few have the resources, access, as well as the physical ability to go surfing. We’re lucky enough to have all three to make surfing our lifestyle, and we still get all cranky when the wind comes onshore or a frothing grom backpaddles us. Not everyone has the luxury. So the question begs: why should you bother getting involved with one of these non-profits?
Well, here’s the first reason: Surfing changes lives.
Yep, look at how it changed yours. That feeling of riding the ocean’s energy can be transformative.
“In my research, I learned there are many ways surfing is therapeutic for children with autism, including studies from Wallace J. Nichols’ “Blue Mind,” which theorized that part of surfing’s therapeutic nature is because it requires participants to focus on the now,” says Lambert. “It’s what’s happening in the moment. Instead of thinking and acting on anxiety or stress, participants often think about what’s in front of them: a fast moving wave.
“When you combine that focus to what happens in your brain while you surf – a release of chemicals that foster motivation, movement and euphoria, such as dopamine and endorphins – the stage is set for significant progress to occur, or what’s known as ‘breakthroughs.’ I saw these breakthroughs with my own eyes.”
He observed children previously diagnosed as “nonverbal,” start speaking about their surfing experience.
“Children with autism who are hesitant to touch even their loved ones were holding hands with surf volunteers as they wade into the sea together,” Lambert continues. “Some participants even having a breakdown – screaming, kicking sand. But once they’re in the water, they become calmer and happier than their parents can recall them being.”
Here’s the second reason: These groups need help.
Special needs families tend to jump at any opportunity involving the outdoors. But when it comes to surfing, the organizations can’t keep up with the demand.
“It’s extremely important for us to have local surfers volunteer at our events. Being 100%-volunteer run, we rely heavily on local surfers and their communities volunteering their time to make these camps happen for our families,” Josh Harper, co-founder of Waves of Impact tells ASN.
Still need more convincing?
Here’s a third reason: You have the perfect resume for the job.
Chances are that the mother of that smiling boy with Down syndrome has her hands full. She hasn’t had the time to learn how to paddle a giant tandem board, navigate the sand bar and know exactly when to jump into a wave. You’ve developed all these skills for yourself. What better way to put this specialty know-how to use than to stoke out someone who hasn’t ever been exposed to surfing?
“Taking children with special needs surfing requires individuals who are very comfortable in the ocean. The majority of the volunteers we get at our Best Day events have little to no experience in the water, so it is crucial for us to have a good number of seasoned waterpeople, particularly surfers, that we can rely on,” explains John Henkes. He and his wife Tricia are Water Team Coordinators for Best Day Foundation, a group that organizes both beach and snow events on both coasts.
“The ability to recognize and respond to ocean conditions and read waves, as well as their comfort and skill on a surfboard, make surfers ideal volunteers for what we do with Best Day,” continues Henkes. “If we have a group of experienced surfers leading our water teams, we are confident that the surfing portion of our events is in good hands and we can safely turn our focus toward other areas.”
And lastly … Here’s the final reason: It will make you feel great.
“We always hear from our surf volunteers at Waves of Impact that they feel they are getting more out of the experience than the child they are surfing with,” adds Harper. “They almost say it like they feel guilty, even though they just made a family’s day, or year, by surfing with the child.
“I just heard a sunburned, worn-out surfer that spent the entire day in the water surfing with children with special needs say, ‘Man, I needed that today.’ A day volunteering with a surf camp helps ground us as humans and helps recharge our own batteries from the chaos of day-to-day life.”
And as you know with any activity, you have more fun when you challenge yourself. Just got spit out of a barrel? Now you want a deeper one. Got a good noseride? You want to sit up there even longer. You’re a surfer. Once you get a kid into a wave, you’re determined to sit out further, get him or her a longer ride … and an even bigger smile.
And that family could care less about Gabriel Medina’s backhand at J-Bay or Kai Lenny’s record time across the Molokai. You are their surfing hero.
Here are just a few groups you can volunteer to get involved with:
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