Every summer for nearly a decade, a large group of beginning surfers takes up a section of Morro Strand State Beach to try out their skills in the water.
Their faces show varying levels of concern, anticipation, joy, pride and determination.
A group hit the ocean Friday as part of Project Surf Camp, a nonprofit program for those with emotional or physical challenges of all ages. The experience is one they and their families likely will never forget.
“Our motto is 'changing lives,' and I can truly say that I’ve seen change in not only the campers, but the volunteers, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, everybody,” said Katy Davis, the camp’s executive director. “Nearly all who try this camp once return and do it again.”
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Project Surf Camp was founded in 2006 by John Taylor, a special-education teacher now at Chris Jesperson School who was born with one leg. Taylor, who uses a prosthetic leg, surfs himself and has a background in therapeutic recreation as well as special education.
The camp’s participants include those along the autism spectrum and those with spina bifida and hearing impairment, among other disabilities.
“What we’re striving for is to foster independence,” Taylor said. “Sometimes parents will come with their child and say, ‘I don’t think he or she will go in the water.’ But with baby steps, often we’ll get them out there, and even if we just push them into two waves, that’s very empowering.”
Volunteers help the campers along by guiding them on longboards into small waves that break near the shore.
Some try to stand, while others are content to lie on their bellies and let the water carry them along — typically smiling or laughing as they go.
The developing surfers are taught to pat their head if they’re not hurt or shaken after a crash in the water.
If they’re in trouble, they’re supposed to wave their hands to make sure someone can help. Volunteers surround them if they’re not already by their side.
Nathanial Soares, 15, has spina bifida and feels nothing in the lower part of his legs. Soares, who moved with his family from the Central Coast to Oklahoma, is an avid camper who can get up on his knees and spread his arms out wide while riding a wave. He can even stand. Soares has attended Project Surf Camp since he was 9 and started out riding waves on his stomach.
“I learned that when you wipe out, you keep on going,” Soares said. “I feel good in the water.”
Growing from its first year, when about 125 participants joined the camp, the nonprofit Project Surf Camp now has 300 who take part throughout the summer, completely booking the various sessions for surfing and paddleboarding. The camp began July 10 and finishes Saturday.
Pete Kumler of Davis has brought his 13-year-old son Josh Kumler, who’s on the autism spectrum, for the past three years. Each year, Pete Kumler said, his son has gained confidence.
“The passion, the camaraderie, the experience, I can’t put it into words,” Pete Kumler said. “It has built his self-esteem.”
Taylor, a former collegiate swimmer who later entered surf contests, said he believes the ocean has a mesmerizing, captivating effect on those with special needs.
“There’s something about water that makes it the great equalizer,” he said.
Last week, Morro Bay City Manager Dave Buckingham and City Councilman Matt Makowetski participated as volunteers and brought their children to help.
“I’ve seen kids terrified at 9 or 10 (a.m.) to be out there in the water, and then around noon, before we finish, they’re standing up and can’t get enough,” Buckingham said.
Makowetski said the camp helps teach his kids and others not to stigmatize others with disabilities by getting involved and directly interacting with participants.
“This is part of that concept of changing lives, to erase stigmas,” Makowetski said.
Elias Brazil, 20, first went to the camp when he was 13. Diagnosed on the autism spectrum, he couldn’t speak at the time. Now he talks about ducking under waves and standing up on his board.
On Friday, he rode several waves, legs spread wide and arms stretched, all on his own. His father, Lee Brazil, said he has made the transition from camper to volunteer.
“It can be hard to make that adjustment from a routine,” Lee Brazil said. “But now, if Elias hears, ‘You’re a volunteer today,’ or, ‘You’re a camper,’ he knows what his role is and he’s ready for it.”