Catherine got to surf! Yep. I haven’t even ever tried surfing. I wimped out in Tamarindo, Costa Rica for some stupid reason, but my five-and-a-half year old (cuz that’s how she’d say it) got to surf when we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago in Wrightsville Beach, NC.
We had sent the guys fishing, so my sister-in-law and I were setting up the compound on our own. Catherine was hanging out in this super-cool beach wheelchair that the Wrightsville Beach Parks and Rec loans for free. A guy who was obviously a surf instructor watching his class in the water came over and asked me, “Have you ever thought about getting her on a board?” I have to confess, I was a little taken aback.
Frankly, I told him, I’d just read an article about surfing and kids with special needs, so I had thought about it briefly, but determined she probably couldn’t do it since she didn’t have much head control. Bummer. He saw it differently.
His name was Jack, and he runs Indo Jax Surf School in Wrightsville Beach. He runs several “outreach camps” during the summer. He’d done one for kids with cerebral palsy already. He’d done one for folks with visual impairments. He was going to be doing one that week for kids with autism in conjunction with the national program called Surfers Healing, and he wondered if we’d like to try to get her on a board. “Think about it,” he said. “You have to be comfortable with it, but we never say no if you want to try it” and he proceeded to tell me how they’d do it.
The kids with Autism were going to be there on Thursday, and I met Jack on Tuesday. As soon as Brian got back from fishing, I told him of the opportunity. We committed to checking it out on Thursday.
We loaded up Catherine and Sarah in a wagon to walk about 1.5 miles down the beach to the event. The weather looked threatening, but hope kept us walking toward the clouds and toward the crowd. We watched these huge surf instructors pop the kids up on boards like they were little beans. Mostly what you could see were the smiles. The kids were exstatic. The instructors possibly moreso. And the parents, friends and passersby on shore were cheering with more enthusiasm than any professional sports fans. They had more heart and it was way more spectacular to see these kids ride in on the waves.
Jack said we’d probably get to go in the afternoon after the camp participants got to go. Understanding of course, we opted to head back to the house thinking we might beat the rain, which didn’t happen. Soaked, we snuggled in for lunch and naps and prepared for the afternoon waiting to surf.
When we got back to the event site, we learned they’d had a rain delay so we’d have to wait longer. No worries. We played in the sand and watched the kids and parents having a wonderful time. Every now and then, Jack checked in to say, “Just a little while longer.” Eventually, it was Catherine’s turn.
She donned a rash guard and life vest and guys carried her out to the ocean and Brian and I stood with Sarah taking photos and video and marveling in the attempt. We had no idea what to expect. Jack got on the board with her. He laid on his belly and propped Catherine against his shoulder. One guy watched the waves and other guys were on either side of the board. Eventually, after waiting for the right wave, they rode into shore, as Brian and I recorded it as best as we could. Catherine, however started coughing and struggling to breathe. And she couldn’t relax. Uh oh, I thought. Did we do the right thing?
I got a little nervous as did Brian, I think. We took her from Jack and they went to surf with another kid while we tried to calm Catherine and help her breathe better. Catherine has stridor now, which makes it hard for her to breathe sometimes due to inflammation in her throat. At it’s worst, it progresses to the point where she needs oxygen. We didn’t have any oxygen.
I just held her in the surf and unzipped her pfd to open her chest a bit more. I walked in with her and rocked her and sang to her to help her relax. Eventually, she settled down enough for me to look at her wet face with her hair tossled in ringlets. And she smiled. It’s the first time I actually thought Catherine smiled as a result of something she did, so I interpreted it that she wanted to go again. Indeed.
We called over to Jack and the other guys who ran over to see that she was OK. They eagerly took her for a second run and she rode in even better the next time. We scooped her up and danced and congratulated her and called her “surfer chick” the rest of the day.
Needless to say, we were thrilled. The surf instructors were pretty psyched, too. They were obviously exhausted from the day, yet they took time to make a little girl smile. They also bathed my soul in light and warmth, and I told them that they didn’t just help the kids that day, they helped the parents. It’s hard to have a kid who isn’t included by peers and family. Getting to see her surf makes all that pain go away for a bit, and that keeps the hope alive.
Hang Ten, Catherine! Hang Ten.
To see photos of the Surfers Healing event, including shots of Catherine, on the IndoJax website, click here.