Cinematographer Pat Notaro, who has an autistic nephew, started AWOW five years ago after volunteering with Surfers Healing.
Photo credits left and the two below: Trevor Pikhart
Written by ANNA BITONG
Nine-year-old Jacob Morgan, who has autism, spoke for the first time six years ago while on a surfboard in the ocean. He was riding the waves with Steven Lippman, president of A Walk On Water, a nonprofit that offers free surf therapy to children with special needs. Steven came to shore with Jacob and told his parents he had said the word “surf.”
“I was almost in tears,” remembers Jacob’s father, Samuel Morgan. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
The Morgans, who live in Rancho Cucamonga, were among the more than 90 families of kids with special needs who attended an April AWOW surf therapy event in Malibu. AWOW hosts surf days on various beaches in Southern California several times a year from early spring to late fall. This particular day involved over 100 volunteers and about 20 surf instructors.
For Jacob and others with special needs, riding the ocean can be an exhilarating form of therapy, the act of surfing over the blue-green expanse giving them a kind of freedom and sensory journey they cannot duplicate on land.
“They’re experiencing the movement of the ocean,” says Steven, a Malibu-based commercial photographer and former competitive surfer. “The texture of it, seaweed, fish, the movement and the energy flowing through their lungs and on their face and in their hair when they’re on the wave. It’s really incredible.”
Some families notice an improvement in the mood or behavior of their special children, referred to by AWOW volunteers as “athletes,” if only for a day, sometimes longer. Others see even more profound positive change.
“I think (surfing) has formed my son, given him character and confidence,” Jacob’s father says. “He is more outgoing and social now.” Others may not see a dramatic change but are happy to see their children experience the joy of the moment.
Cinematographer Pat Notaro III founded AWOW five years ago. He had volunteered as a surf instructor at Surfers Healing events hosted by Variety Children’s Charity, held annually since 2000 to honor his late father, Sony Pictures executive Pat
Notaro Jr., a strong Variety supporter and a longtime Malibu surfer. Pat, whose nephew has autism, described surfing as “movement therapy.”
“Surfing is a repetitive sport,” the Thousand Oaks resident says. “And repeating things over and over has always been a way to help a lot of kids on the autism spectrum. The kids with other needs get to do something that their parents could never imagine their child doing.”
The brief sojourn on the water can be transformative.
“The ocean is electrifying,” Pat says. “There’s chemistry going on there. We’ve yet to prove it scientifically, but surfing is therapeutic. We know it helps children with autism because we’ve seen kids that are nonverbal actually speak. Maybe those words, you can’t really understand them. But the fact that you’re hearing a noise come out of their mouth is progress. And it’s happened here at the beach.”
Unlike other groups that provide surf therapy, AWOW’s instructors also surf with the often-overshadowed siblings of kids with special needs.
“For us to bring the siblings out surfing with the athletes in the water together, it creates a bond,” Pat says. “Because when mom and dad aren’t around anymore, who’s going to take care of (them)? It’s going to be their brother or sister.”
AWOW instructors, who are CPR-certified, surf with kids as long as possible, often during several sessions in a day, because “We don’t want it to feel like kids are being shuffled in and out,” Pat says.
Even kids initially opposed to surfing are smiling when they return to shore.
Steven once paddled out with a child who screamed and scratched, punched and kicked him until he bled. Minutes later the child was calm and laughing on the ocean. Another time Steven sat on his board with a girl who did not speak and could barely move. He held her hunched body in his arms, swayed and hummed to her until she fell asleep.
“A lot of them overcome this fear,” Steven says. “The ocean has incredible healing powers.”
AWOW relies on fundraising events, donations, sponsorships and merchandise sales to bankroll its events, which offer surfing, lunch and snacks to attending families at no charge.
“Families’ dreams and careers come to a halt a lot of times because they have to put 100 percent into their (special needs) kids,” Steven says. “Their funds can run out trying to find therapy and ways to better the situation for their child. So we’re just here trying to act like a small angel giving someone a kiss.”
Kristine and Joe Alvarez of Apple Valley brought their two autistic children, Joseph, 6, and Kennie, 5, to AWOW’s day at the beach.
“Coming here really gives us hope that everything will be OK,” Kristine says. “Everyday life is not like here at the beach. We worry about our kids, about school, about everything on a daily basis, all day long. There’s no ‘off’ button for us. This is the one day that we can somewhat turn the switch off because everyone is out here for our kids. That’s rare to find.”
Lisa Hutson, who lives in Newbury Park and teaches at EARTHS Magnet School, has been bringing her developmentally delayed son, Leo, 8, to AWOW events since he was a toddler.
She believes surfing has “increased his confidence, increased his feeling of importance, his feeling there’s a piece of him that’s bigger than just our family and our typical day.”
The family, including older brother Jack, 12, looks forward to each AWOW event. “Instead of Leo being the reason we can’t do something, Leo is the reason we can do this amazing event,” Hutson says.
“I cry every time,” she says. “In this world where sometimes things don’t make you feel too happy each day, you come to his event and you are rejuvenated, revitalized, replenished and you have hope and faith in the good of people. It’s a beautiful, bright, positive day.”