What if I told you there was a beach with no judgments, an encouragement of expression, and the freedom to let emotions loose — would you be on board? And no, I'm not talking about a nude beach.
On September 7, Tybee will welcome the third annual Coastal Empire Surfers for Autism beach festival. On that day the beach will become a judgment-free zone. So, no need to worry about bikini-ready bodies or tanning oil.
Surfers for Autism (SFA) is a nonprofit organization that hosts events internationally on sandy shores. They take on the tide of adversity to give children and young adults with developmental delays a day at the beach to be themselves and ride the waves.
At this point you may be assuming this article will include testimonials that warm hearts, ones that may make you feel guilty for not doing more volunteer work. Well, it does, and it might. But, like any story, there's more to it than that.
And you must admit that mixing surfing and helping autistic kids is a break from the norm of nonprofits.
So, how do these two seemingly unrelated things come together?
Kathleen Fields, a local Surfers for Autism volunteer and coordinator, tells the tale of Tybee's first encounter with the organization three years ago:
"Dave Rossman (a national coordinator for SFA) said he went the first year and talked to city council and said, 'I'd like to take autistic kids surfing on your beach.' And the council was like, 'you want to do what?' They had never heard of it — I had never heard of it."
But after a little bit of convincing, Fields says, "they came down to the event, and the mayor even carried boards—Jason (Buelterman, mayor of Tybee) was at the beach carrying boards! And the fire department went and got everyone's lunches."
With so much community support, Tybee became the ongoing site of SFA's Coastal Empire chapter. SFA started out in South Florida but has branched out all over U.S. coasts as well as washing up on the beaches of Australia and Puerto Rico.
While the organization holds events in various parts of the world, the coordination is primarily community based, with raffles of giveaways from local businesses, as well as local fire and police departments bringing their cars and trucks to be slathered in washable paint by the kids.
And in order to be one of the volunteers to take these kids out to the water and on to the board, no previous experience is needed. Fields's husband and fellow SFA volunteer, Brent Fields, admits that when it came to being experienced with developmentally delayed kids, "We weren't. I would say most of the volunteers weren't experienced. It's something that you may not expect from the surfing community, but once you meet the people you find out what kind of hearts they have."
A group of two or three volunteers are combined with a "master" surfer and they take the kids into the water one at a time. But all a volunteer has to "master" is being on time for a meeting the morning of the festival.
"We go over everything from eye contact to how we are going to take children safely into the water to what happens at lunch," says Kathleen Fields.
But, even with all the logistics, the real focus of SFA events is clear.
Recalling her volunteering for SFA, Kathleen even concedes that once she "had missed the first volunteer meeting ... and I was playing catch-up on the beach. And one of the moms came up to me crying after the event and I was like 'did I do something wrong?', what happened?'—and all of these thoughts go through your head.
"And then she says, 'I have the first picture of my son smiling—ever.' You're dumbfounded."
Brent adds that "you never realize how that connection happens or how tight it can be. I met this little boy, his name is Hunter, during our first event. I pushed him on a few waves, and on his second round it just so happened that I got him again, so we played and pushed him on a few more waves. And now every event that he (attends) he looks for me. And now we got to the point where we are actually working on surfing skills—how to turn and balance and everything. ... You watch these kids grow."
Tybee's Surfers for Autism beach festival still has an open invitation to any person willing to get wet and put judgment aside.
Kathleen promises that "it's a complete day of acceptance on the beach. There are no real stigmas—no whispering 'did you see that autistic kid?'—it's the norm that day. It's absolute, complete acceptance."