The way former professional surfer Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz tells it, he was leading a charmed life before the birth of his son, Isaiah.
“My life was so different than what it was, being one of the beautiful people, taking surf trips around the world, and winning silver cups and I thought I was the man," says Paskowitz.
However, Isaiah’s arrival changed a lot for the life-long surfer, and Izzy doesn’t mince words about how it made him feel when he saw his son was born with autism. “I thought I was the man until I had Isaiah, and it took me a while to deal with the acceptance of autism,” he said.
Izzy admittedly struggled to come to terms with his son’s condition, until he discovered that he and Isaiah had something in common.
“One thing I could connect with my son was being in the water," he said.
Surfing and being in the ocean seemed to soothe Isaiah. So, Izzy took this concept and ran with it.
“I had a group of guys who were my friends, and I said, ‘Hey do you want to maybe get together and take, maybe, a group of autistic children out because it works. It really works, there’s something in the water that’s therapeutic.'"
It was this idea that launched a program for children with autism that’s still going strong 21 years after its founding: Surfers Healing.
Surfers Healing is a one-day camp where children with autism are paired with a professional surfer or life guard and are brought out into the ocean to surf. The camps take place every summer on both U.S. coasts, as well as overseas. Not many people would think surfing would be an appropriate activity for children with autism, but many observers soon become believers.
“You see the kids going out, and a lot of them are going out and they’re loving it. They can’t wait to get out there.” says Woody German.
Woody is responsible for the organizing of a Surfers Healing camp in Ocean City, Maryland. He was inspired to bring the camp close to his home of Baltimore after seeing a short story on the event on ESPN. Woody drove to Virginia Beach to see the camp in person. Soon thereafter he started volunteering with Surfers Healing before ultimately deciding to help coordinate a Surfers Healing event in Maryland.
“Everybody needed to experience it. You know? You’re only allowed so many kids at each camp and we had to get more kids out in the water," says German
That last part can be a little tricky. Both children and parents can be nervous before the big ride. Gloria Crowell can attest to it. She brought her young son to the Ocean City camp.
“I was a little nervous to be honest with you due to the fact that he does have a lot of sensory issues. I was kind of concerned with the sand and the water and stuff like that, but he seems to surprise me every time," she said.
And campers sometimes can even surprise themselves.
“I was, like, crying. I was crying loud. Because I didn’t want to get dunked,” says James Jensen. James lives with autism, but he didn’t let that stop him from catching a few waves.
“I felt like, I felt like we were flying. I like the part where you stand up," he said.
According to Woody, it's moments like those that make the program so worth it for parents, children, and volunteers alike.
“When you see something like that, you can’t help but stand here and cry. If you’re paying attention to what’s going on, you’re crying.”