BRICK – It was all smiles in the surf at Brick Beach 3 when the community came together to host Autism Surf Day for about 60 children who got the chance to catch a wave, many for the first time.
Hosted by POAC (Parents of Autistic Children) and the Brick Recreation Department, the children were in good hands as nearly all the Brick lifeguards volunteered their time to provide a free surfing lesson.
Green Dragons football players also volunteered their time and expertise to be “catchers,” waiting at the water’s edge to help the kids dismount from the surfboards.
Brick Beach Captain Donovan Brown said the lifeguards train for the event to learn how to best help the children with the experience.
“The kids go out in 15-minute intervals, and some go out more than once,” Brown said. “It’s a great day for Brick – the lifeguards volunteer, (Green Dragons football) Coach Zdanowicz is fantastic, he tells his football players about this – it’s a great team-building exercise for them – and the autistic kids get to surf and have fun.”
Executive Director Gary Weitzen of the non-profit POAC Autism Services Brick said the organization hosts some 250 days of recreation events throughout the year for anywhere between 50-1,500 autistic children, including three surf days in the summer.
Michelle Waldron of Keyport brought her 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to Autism Surf Day.
“POAC has changed her life,” Michelle said. “She loves it, she gets excited when she sees Gary (Weitzen), she comes alive when we go to a POAC event.”
Charlotte is non-verbal and tends to retreat into her own shell, Michelle said.
“I also have two younger children, and they’ll all be surfing today,” she said. “They make friends with the siblings because they have that in common. It’s not always easy for them to have an autistic sibling, so we’re like a big family.”
Brick lifeguards Tom Koepplinger, 24, and David Yanovsky, 21, help with Autism Surf Day every year.
“It’s very special, what we do here,” Koepplinger said. “It’s a real feel-good experience.”
Yanovsky agreed. “I love to volunteer, you get a real sense of community. We get to showcase what we do, and it’s inspirational to see (the autistic children) hang out and socialize and have a good time.”
Football players and friends Tyson Lopez and Michael Pormigiano, both 17 and going into their senior year at Brick High School, said they found the day rewarding.
“I like making their day,” Lopez said. “We make them feel safe – we don’t want them to be scared.”
Pormigiano said he enjoys coming to the event and giving back by helping some of the kids out. “It’s fun – everyone’s really nice and happy.”
Brick residents Chris and Carrie Shipley brought their son Christopher, 9, to Autism Surf Day for the first time.
“He was very excited to come here,” Chris said. “We bring him to POAC events when we have time and we think he’ll enjoy it.”
“He loves the ocean,” Carrie added.
Autism Surf Day was sponsored by Brick Recreation, POAC, Coastline Adventure Surf School, Twin County Soccer, Jersey Mike’s, Brick Recreation LifeGuard Staff, Awards of Brick, BHS Dragon Football and Brick Recreation Youth Club.