Surfers Healing celebrates 20 years of sharing the stoke for autistic kids
The surf was flat, the ocean looking more like a lake. Then the wind kicked up, adding a chop to the water’s surface. And rain started to fall from the sky.
Some might call it a challenging morning to hold a surf event. But fortunately, the day wasn’t really about riding waves.
These families, the 150 or so who showed up at Doheny State Beach, Thursday, Sept. 21 to get their children in the water, they know challenges. A little bit of funky weather and less-than-ideal conditions — that they can deal with.
“The water is an absolute, quantifiable therapy for children with autism. Coming out of the water, there is a physiological change,” said Izzy Paskowitz, who two decades ago co-founded Surfers Healing, a group that holds surf camps around the country for children with autism. “It’s not forever. It doesn’t cure autism. But it makes them happy.”
Paskowitz had a childhood that was not so normal.
His family’s story is well known, especially in the surf world. His father, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, is an icon in the culture who raised his nine children in a small camper, living summers on the sand at San Onofre and hitting the road the rest of the year to help provide medical services to people in need, much of the time for free. They didn’t attend school — instead Doc believed true education came from life experience.
Every stranger is a friend, a lesson Doc passed on to his children.
“It’s unique and different and sometimes challenging and weird — kind of like growing up a Paskowitz,” Izzy said of autism. “I wasn’t normal.”
In his younger years, Paskowitz was a pro surfer and when he had his son, he dreamed he’d have a protege to follow in his footsteps. But Paskowitz and his wife, Danielle, noticed differences in their child, which at first, Paskowitz tried to ignore.
“It took me a while,” said Paskowitz, who now lives in San Juan Capistrano. “I wanted so badly for him to be who I was.”
He worried about how having a child who was different would be perceived by those around him. “I worried it would embarrass my family. My dad was an icon of surfing — is it going to put a black mark, a smudge on my dad’s history?”
There were few autism resources available at the time, and the family tried every “therapy” they could find — including one that put kids with autism in the water with dolphins in Key Largo, he said.
“Somehow, they knew exactly how much was in our saving’s account and it wiped us dry,” he said.
But he learned that water helped soothe his son, Isaiah. So Paskowitz put him on a surfboard. He instantly saw a difference. Then a friend asked if Paskowitz could take his autistic son out on the water — then another pleaded.
It wasn’t easy in the early years. Paskowitz was overcome with what he felt from the kids and the stresses of their families, and would have to take breaks, sitting by himself out in the water so he could cry.
“I’d pull myself together and we’d ride waves. And each wave was just joy. That moment seemed like it lasted a lifetime, and they were happy riding these waves,” he said. “They were doing something just fun and rad. They were just surfing.”
He and Danielle formed Surfers Healing 20 years ago, and vowed to never charge the families who participate each year.
Since its founding, hundreds of thousands of kids with autism have surfed with the nonprofit. Surfers Healing makes several stops a year throughout the country, recently returning from the East Coast and after the Dana Point event, they head to Hawaii.
“We never wanted a penny for this,” he said.
None of it would happen without the volunteers, some of whom show up to help at every camp, Paskowitz said.
Seth McElroy, Isaiah’s cousin, has been volunteering since the group started. “Getting to see the smile on these kids’ faces and connect with them, it’s special,” he said.
Paskowitz has heard over and over from parents who don’t think he can handle their children. He points to his own son, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs about 250 pounds.
“I show them the scars on his arms from biting himself. And how many times he’s knocked himself out and how many times we’ve had bloodbaths,” he said.
One big lesson he’s learned over the years: It’s as much for the parents as it is for the kids. “The parents are watching their kids do something as simple as normal – doing something any other child can do,” he said.
Just be happy
Rebecca and Kevin Tiffany watched nervously as their daughter Alissa went farther and farther out in the water, Thursday, laying on the board as Paskowitz paddled down the ocean where other volunteers and kids sat waiting for waves.
“I’m terrified,” Rebecca, of Mission Viejo, confessed.
Alissa was 3 when she was knocked down by a wave at Aliso Creek Beach. Combine that with the saltwater that itches her when it dries on her skin, or the funny feeling of the sand and seaweed, and beach days became out of the question.
“She will run away from the smallest of waves,” Rebecca said.
That’s a hard thing to accept for the parents, a pair of scuba diving instructors who share a love for the ocean.
But on this day, Alissa seemed calm as she rested on Paskowitz’s board.
And that’s what Paskowitz strives for — a moment of peace, something he hopes for his own son, now 26.
“That’s what I would like to instill for families coming down — there’s hope, and with acceptance that you’re not alone. All of us are in it together. … And that connection has been very comforting.”
Parents gathered on the sand Thursday talked about how Surfers Healing gives their children a chance to discover something they love.
Chelsea Pap-Goodwin watched from the sand as her son Cooper rode waves, his second year with the camp.
“We had no idea surfing would be his thing. We didn’t know if he would be limited but the moment he did it, he really liked it,” she said. “The enthusiasm and fearlessness is what amazes me.”
She learned of Cooper’s autism when he was 14 months old, after small cues such as lacking eye contact and baby babbling.
They never gave him swim lessons, but two years ago were shocked when Cooper took off his floaties and declared he could swim. He first attempt, he sank to the bottom of the pool. But he wanted to try again, and that time, he swam.
The water calmed him, soaking up whatever was going on around him, she said.
“He can be in the moment and it stabilizes his senses, so he can take it all in. It makes him more aware. It’s like their equilibrium is off for a lot of them. I think the water helps so they can moderate his senses,” she said.
The rain that dampened the morning, the clouds overhead sending a chill, and the funky ocean conditions weren’t enough to put a damper on the day.
“It’s another beautiful day, and it has a different journey to it,” Pap-Goodwin said. “We make the best out of what we got.”
Want to help?
The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel will host its annual Holiday Surfboard Auction and Surfing Santa Competition, this year a two-day surf competition that will include stand-up paddleboarding, both events benefiting Surfers Healing. The surf and SUP is Nov. 18 and 19 at Salt Creek Beach. The auction runs from Nov. 18 through Dec. 31, with surfboards on display at the oceanfront resort throughout the holiday season. Through the years, the resort has raised nearly $300,000 for Surfers Healing, allowing for them to provide the camp for free for families. More information: surfershealing.org