On the shores of Miami Beach, 27 staff members and 12 campers take to the waves last March to put their surfing skills to the test during the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities’ (UM-NSU CARD) Surf Camp.
The annual program located at South Pointe Park hosts 12 children between the ages of 8 and 12 who have autism. These high- and low-functioning children spend the week of their spring break learning how to surf.
Of the 7,000 families at CARD, these 12 children are selected after going through an interview process to evaluate their ability to thrive on their own without familiar faces.
“This is a camp to focus on their abilities, instead of their disabilities,” said Maricarmen Saleta, an educational specialist at UM-NSU CARD who helped plan the program in 2007.
After meeting Michael Alessandri, executive director of CARD, Saleta moved to Miami in 2005 and began working for him at UM-NSU CARD. In 2007, Julio Magrisso, assistant director of the recreation division for the city of Miami Beach, saw a documentary about a similar camp in California for children with disabilities. Immediately inspired, he contacted Alessandri, who passed the project on to Saleta, and the two groups began co-planning the camp.
The weeklong program, funded by the Autism Society of Miami and private sponsors acquired at CARD’s annual “Tropical Nights” fundraiser, is free to campers and their families.
The program first took place in 2008 and hosted two sessions. However, each year since, they have only been able to offer one session because of funding.
The city already had a summer Surf Camp organized for ordinary kids, so it was easy to adapt the same staff and instructors for CARD’s program, said Edith Guerra, a Miami-Beach Parks and Recreation Supervisor who has worked for the camp since its inception.
Guerra feels that the camp is an opportunity for everyone to recognize the true potential of the kids, regardless of their disabilities.
“When you get a chance to see the parents see what they’re children have learned, they’re just so surprised,” she said. “They think, ‘I never thought my child would be able to do something like this.’”
The children enjoy it as much as the parents.
“I feel happy,” said 10-year-old camper Jake Stempel when asked about his surfing experience.
Jack Ruderman, a 9-year-old camper, agreed.
“I do it because I like to surf and … I have a lot a friends,” he said.
In the future, CARD and Miami Beach are talking about expanding the recreational activities to other sports, according to Guerra. In addition to the surf program, CARD already hosts soccer and tennis programs.
Saleta hopes more children will be able to participate in this rewarding experience.
“It’s an amazing experience for these kids,” she said. “It’s amazing to see their face when they get up on the board.”