Surf’s Up for Social Good | Surfr Story
“The sun was shining and the surf was small enough for most the kids to get some green in the line up!” – Dennis Nerpio, Founder, Surf’s Up Surf Camp, Tofino, BC.
Given the prevalence of autism—the neurological developmental disorder that affects one in 68 children in our country—it seems almost unfathomable that most people don’t know more about it. I first learned of autism in high school, volunteering in an after school program at Phillips Academy Andover that brought autistic children together with “normal” people to help them socialize and have fun.
Very little was known about autism in the early 2000s, and today there is still much to be discovered. Families dealing with autism are faced with countless challenges in everyday life, and it’s not easy to find an activity that pleases a whole group of autistic children given the complexity of the disorder and the wide variety of sensory aversions. This is a disorder where people struggle to communicate, and to feel or express emotion. And though it may be surprising to most, surfing is one such activity.
The Surf’s Up Camp in Tofino, British Columbia is a grassroots initiative started by Dennis Nerpio, whose son was diagnosed with autism at age four. Dennis, a surfer himself, took his son to the beach one day about five years ago, and discovered something magical… not only did his son enjoy the beach, but surfing with his dad took him out of the context of being an autistic child and provided him a new sense of freedom.
Dennis was inspired by his son and wanted other children with autism to experience the same. He set a date, began making phone calls, and about one year later, Surfs Up surf camp was off to a start (note, the first year, Dennis forgot the apostrophe, and this is a running joke). Everyone loves the event, held at Cox Beach on Vancover Island in the late summer when the waves are small and manageable and the water is warm, well… it’s still Canada, not that warm!
Surf’s Up began 2014 with a plan to have 36 kids with autism plus their siblings for a one-day surf camp. The event has gained attention over the years, and as the wait list grew, reaching 30 families, Dennis decided to ramp it up. Surf’s Up added an extra day and opened up twelve more spots for kids with ASD.
“Sometimes in life you have that moment where suddenly everything around you comes full circle. You stop what you are doing and take a moment to let everything sink in. You are awe struck by how many people have come into your life and how many strangers become family.” – Dennis Nerpio
One autism therapist and one surf instructor is assigned to each family. Each child is guided on the waves for an hour of surf. They may sit on the front of a longboard with a lifevest, or be pushed into waves by themselves close to the shore, depending on what suits them best. A total of 90 kids participated in this year’s event, including siblings surfing. Dennis and the organizing team felt that including siblings was important, to help both build a bond and share in on the fun. Siblings often get left out of the fun things that their brother or sister with ASD get to do… but Surf’s Up is an inclusive event that encourages participation from the whole family.
The event continues growing with raving reviews from the participants. The event is described as one of the best of the year, with magical moments of joy and freedom. Surf’s Up allows the children and the families to be free of concern and to “let loose”… to enjoy the exhilarating fun of the waves. It’s that simple.
“I think being in an environment where the kids are accepted and not judged and encouraged by everyone surrounding them is special,” Dennis explains. “At the end of the day when we give out awards for all the kids including the siblings they are just stoked!”
The word for the weekend from most families was “magical” or best vacation ever!
“At the end of the day it’s about the kids and families and creating the community and awareness while have an awesome time surfing and playing beach games” – Dennis Nerpio
At the awards ceremony, the joy is evident with big smiles and high fives everywhere, “I won!!” the kids yell. The kids are feeling the flow, Dennis reports, “it’s like getting barrelled for the first time, you come out just stoked! These kids are feeling that moment.” They get their first wave tandem or even going solo and being pushed into the
There is one child in particular that helps tell the story embodies what most kids are feeling. She is about 9 years old has Autism, is blind and has a fragile bone disease. It is her second year attending and each time I see her in the water she is always slapping the board wanting to ride more waves with her instructor. She can’t see what’s going on around her but she can feel it.”
Surfr is a brand that promotes social good and aims to build a community of surfers that are connected to a greater cause. We look for stories about people who are either trying to make a change in society, or just out there doing good things for our planet, or for other people. I learned of Surf’s Up through Indiegogo and was immediately impressed by Dennis’s initiative to use his own experience with his son to help others experience a simple joy that so many of us take for granted.
I asked Dennis about how his son feels about the progress of the camp. I was curious if he still loved surfing, and had really caught “the bug” that turns us from hobbyists to enthusiasts. “He can not get enough” of surfing, Dennis explains. And he thinks the camp is fun, but he doesn’t say too much, as “expressing feelings is hard for him unless it is for Mom or Dad”. But, like his father, the boy understands the camp is benefitting others. Dennis told me “he’s worried about what the other families would do,” if they stopped the camp.
Surf’s Up Surf Camp in Tofino is free event is supported by sponsorships from organizations such as Rip Curl and Harmony House, a Center for Autism research and therapy. This year included over three hundred people total, including children, parents, instructors and volunteers.