September 10, 2013
AFSNJ’s Beach Bash/Surfers Healing
We slide serenely into a coveted space, and I silently thank the parking gods of Belmar for providing this one blessed opening in what looks to be a packed house of streets. Zach and I are running a few minutes late for the Autism Family Services of New Jersey’s Annual Autism Beach Bash, and since I am painfully punctual and don’t want him to miss his surfing slot, I rush us out of the car.
We make record time to registration, carefully navigating amongst people and ropes stretched taut to order them, and we’re in. I find a perfect slice of sand to deposit our chairs and towels, find out that my rushing was unnecessary as the Surfers Healing people are running about forty minutes behind schedule, which means Zach and I will have time to explore. I tell him we can head toward the game tent and he gives a big “whoohoo!”, then speeds ahead with his middle-aged mommy trying to keep up.
Yes, I said trying.
Zach and I have attended the Beach Bash two years in a row now, and it’s such a special day and unique event that I am determined to carve out time for it annually. It’s held the first Sunday after Labor Day at Belmar’s seventh avenue beach, and includes a surf camp called Surfers Healing, a California-based nonprofit which specializes in working with children with special needs. You must register for both separately, and spots fill up very quickly for the surf camp (however last year we were able to get in on a waiting list the day of without a problem).
The Bash includes an activity tent with games, an arts and crafts area, a dunking game (Zach’s favorite as he reigned victorious), slide and bouncy house, music and dancing, and an exhibitor tent featuring local and statewide services for individuals with autism and their families. Last year over 5,000 people attended, which is not surprising as 1 in 49 individuals in the Garden State are on the autism spectrum. This is one event where every autistic person, and equally importantly, their families, can pass an entire day simply having fun and not being judged.
Trust me, it’s a priceless gift.
I had the opportunity to interview a few families during the event while keeping an eye on Zach (no easy feat). I spoke to Keith Fleming, who along with his wife Lora is raising two young girls on the spectrum, Megan and Emily, eight and seven years old respectively. Keith shared with me that the Beach Bash was a “great experience” for all of them, and although attending the event required some coaxing with one of their daughters, it was worth the effort. He told me that it was “wonderful to be able to do something together as a whole family,” and they planned on attending every year.
As a mom who struggles to discover activities which take into account both of my sons’ needs, I could completely relate to that sentiment.
Zach soon conquered all of the games available to him, and we migrated over to the arts and crafts table. I struck up a conversation with a teenaged boy, Ryan, 13, and his mother, Lori Dunlap, who told me they loved coming to the Beach Bash to volunteer, and had been attending for the last four consecutive years. Lori’s daughter Ashley, 11, told me she loved helping people with autism and that the day was “awesome.” Her mom shared with me that her husband Mike had wanted his children to be involved in something philanthropically, and had chosen this event for them to participate in annually. I asked what their connection was to autism, and Ryan just smiled at me and said they didn’t have one, they just “liked to help.”
It is so rare in this state to find anyone without a connection to autism. It is even more rare to discover individuals without a connection willing to give their time and services to a great cause. I managed to stammer out a “thank you so much,” then darted off in pursuit of my son who had remembered the dunking booth.
Moments of connection are fleeting when you’re caring for an energetic six-year-old.
Soon Zach’s number was called, and we trotted over to the surf station, my son uncharacteristically holding my hand, slightly nervous about the activity to come, although loathe to admit it. Soon we are registered and he is lead away to don a life jacket, but before he goes he gives me a small wave as I stake out my spot on the water’s edge. After a few minutes one of the Surfers Healing volunteers rides in, and he and several other volunteers swing my son into pounding waves, then deposit him firmly on the sun-kissed surfboard. I watch as his helper glides effortlessly away from me, then I settle in to wait for them to catch the “big one.”
But the waiting gives me a chance to breathe (which I don’t often get to do), to take in my surroundings, to really see what’s transpiring around me without worrying about one of my kids running away. I see faces alight with joy. I hear crying and tantrums of major proportions. I witness adults and children making invaluable connections, see individuals with autism stretching their limits to attempt new things, and watch as the adults around them reach to accommodate them. It’s a day where autism dominates, where the neurotypical world is for once diminished, placed into the minority. It’s messy. It’s beautiful.
I whip out of my reverie as I realize that big wave has indeed materialized, and our volunteer and his charge attack it in stages. First, my brave boy holds tight for dear life. Then I watch as he struggles to a crouching position, hands still clenching fiberglass in a death grip. Finally, I see him soar to a standing position which I miraculously capture for posterity, see my boy triumph as he waves to his dot of a mother so far away from him, but always so near as well. He tumbles at the end, and politely but firmly declines another attempt, but all is well. Within moments he is graced with a trophy and has hugged his helper goodbye, then rushes to my arms for a hug and a tug back to our chairs for lunch.
To register for the surf camp visit http://www.surfershealing.org
For updates regarding the 2014 Beach Bash, please visit http://www.autismbeachbash.org
For information about Autism Family Services of New Jersey please call toll free 1-877-237-4477, or visit http://www.autismfamilyservicesnj.org