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United Way Blog

Surf Camp Helps Special Needs Kids Build Confidence

As an elementary school teacher and a life-long surfer, I always felt that surfing could help build self-esteem in kids, especially for those with physical and emotional struggles.  While teaching, I realized one day that I was using surfing metaphors and analogies to teach kids life lessons. That’s when the idea of creating a surf school for special needs kids took seed.

It all started 10 years ago when my family and I relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina—close to Wrightsville Beach.  As I immersed myself into the surfing community, I realized it was the perfect location for the surf school I hoped to establish.  The water here is warm in the summer and the waves are fairly gentle and perfect for learning. 

Professionally, I was starting a new job as a first grade teacher at St. Mary Catholic School in downtown Wilmington.  The school had a program for kids born with HIV/AIDS and I worked with school officials to create a three-week surf camp specifically for them.

The first camp was held in May 2008 for around 20 kids with HIV/AIDS.  Many of them were taken out of school, ostracized and neglected.  Some had gone off their medication, essentially attempting suicide.  All had low self-esteem.  But by the end of the week, we knew we were on to something big.  We saw huge tangible changes: shoulders held high, smiles, laughter and eye contact.  In fact, the kids that neglected to take their medications were now back on them just so they could surf!

From there, things just grew. 

We created camps for visually and hearing impaired children, autistic kids and those with diabetes to name a few.  Eventually the demand for our charity program outgrew what the surf school profits could afford.  I started the nonprofit, Indo Jax Surf Charities, to open the door for more individuals and companies to make a personal difference.  Soon after, I retired from teaching after 20 years to run our programs full time. 

Today, our programs for special needs children aren’t limited to Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach, NC. We’re launching a school in Half Moon Bay, California and extending our work internationally to India and Nicaragua.

On August 12, the wonderful children and their families in our surf camp will be featured on “The Hero Effect,” a docu-series presented by United Way that airs on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. I encourage you to tune in at 10:00 am EDT.

Our goal is to empower children through surfing and a rule we live by is “you can wipe out, but you can get right back up.” 

The Hero Effect is an uplifting docu-series that brings to life the stories of ordinary individuals who are making extraordinary differences in their communities. Shot on location in ten different communities across the country, each episode brings audiences real-life stories that show the impact one person can make.

Learn More