The Journey Begins
Surfers Healing began with a journey.
When I (co-founder Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz) was growing up, my family wasn't like other families. My dad, surfing legend and Stanford M.D. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, wanted his 9 children to have the wisdom that comes from life experience. So instead of living in a house, we lived in a small camper, traveling in search of our next wave. (Check out the Surfwise documentary to learn more.)
All this helped me achieve my dream of becoming a professional surfer. I won major titles, major endorsements, major respect. In 1987, I married the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, Danielle. Then our first child, Israelah, came along. My life was perfect.
Isaiah, our second child, was perfect too: handsome, laughing, smiling. But then he began to regress. He stopped speaking and hitting developmental milestones. Diagnosis? Autism.
I was in shock, denial, and disbelief. What about the child I thought I had? My dreams were dashed, and I wondered what I'd done to deserve this unexpected blow.
I didn't want to deal with it. I couldn't deal with it. So I threw myself into my work, avoiding home as much as possible. Paralyzed, I feared that I'd let my family down, that it was my fault.
But I had to get past all that. I had to get over myself and start thinking about Isaiah. I began taking him with me everywhere. I stopped caring what people said or thought.
Fortunately, I met some amazing people who loved Isaiah exactly as he was. Thanks to them, I learned to embrace, rather than fight, the reality of my son's differences.
The Pivotal Moment
The scene: the beach, opening ceremonies of the World Longboard Championship in Haleiwa, Hawaii. The problem: Isaiah was having a meltdown.
My wife tried to calm him, but she had her hands full. Not knowing what else to do, I picked Isaiah up and heaved him into the ocean.
When his head popped up, a transformation had taken place; here was a happy, smiling, peaceful child. What else could I do but jump in with him? A friend grabbed a longboard, and Isaiah and I rode the waves for the first time.
He loved it. He loved the ocean; he loved being out on the board together. And me? I was beside myself, because I was finally connecting with my son.
We could surf together, and that was enough.
I believe that Isaiah responded so dramatically to the ocean that day because it helped calm him during a time of sensory overload. It was a therapeutic experience for him. There's something powerful about the weightlessness or floating, the lightness of riding a wave. And our family has seen that transformation time and time again with Isaiah.
That day in Hawaii, I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, surfing might help other kids with autism like it had helped Isaiah.
With that in mind, Danielle and I began inviting other families to join us in the water. We founded Surfers Healing, the original surf camp for children with autism, in 1996.
Our Shared Journey
Since then, Surfers Healing has grown tremendously. Now, we offer free surf camps for children with autism across the country, from San Diego to Rhode Island. We also have camps in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Each year, we surf with thousands of children with autism.
Our daylong camps are about acceptance, respite, and fun. (I call it, “Extreme Special Ed.”) Surfing isn't a cure for autism, but you'd be surprised at the difference a day at the beach can make. It's amazing to see what our kids can do, and how they light up as they learn.
Isaiah is in his twenties now, and the autism I once thought was a curse turned out to be a precious gift. It is an honor to be Isaiah's father, to see Surfers Healing grow and flourish. Every child is beautiful and unique, and every child deserves a moment in the sun.
See you at the beach!
Israel and Danielle Paskowitz, Co-Founders, Surfers Healing