Super stoked to have my first-ever article appear on sbcsurf.com in the days following the release of the big relaunch issue. It was even more amazing how it came about. I decided to take a wander along Cox Bay with my camera, but I accidentally dropped my lens cap and had to circle back around. That’s how I bumped into a guy I had met at the Rip Curl Pro earlier in the year, who helped connect me to Dennis Nerpio (interviewed for the article)
There Aren’t Any Barriers in the Water
The Rip Curl Surfs Up Event
By Drew Penner
SBC Surf Contributor
Waves are the great equalizer.
That was on full display during last weekend’s Surf’s Up event, which gives families of kids with autism the opportunity to experience the magic of surfing in Tofino, over a two-day period.
“It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” said founder Dennis Nerpio, of the SUPA Society, back at home in the Lower Mainland after an impactful weekend. “Families, they laugh they cry.
“There’s no judgement put on them. Their kids can do whatever they want to do.”
This year 56 children with autism got a chance to face the same struggles we all do when trying to catch a wave or three – putting your wetsuit on, coming up against the cold ocean’s embrace, figuring out what to do every time a wave comes.. Since entire families are invited to participate, this year’s Surf’s Up program included more than 100 participants.
“These kids can break barriers,” he said. “They can do what they want to do.”
Surf’s Up is not intended as a therapeutic exercise, rather just way for families who may be used to shouldering seemingly endless behavioural hurdles to get away and have an amazing vacation.
“It’s basically a day of fun on the beach in an inclusive and supportive environment,” he said. “It’s a catered event to each child individually to help them succeed.”
It was a powerful result, a project born of out of the exasperation Nerpio felt in facing the strain involved in giving a four-year-old son newly diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
It was a long road to gaining a diagnosis.
Their child never seemed to sleep and was quite a picky eater. And he was always looking off into the distance.
“As he got older things got harder,” Nerpio said. “We’d blame ourselves sometimes.
“So we’d take parenting classes.”
Nerpio and his wife found there weren’t many supports available to families like theirs. Eventually, they were taking their son to 16 hours of therapy sessions every week – not an easy task when you consider he was still in kindergarten. They were at their breaking point.
But Nerpio had an idea.
The Filipino immigrant had been surfing since 1992 but hadn’t gone in awhile.
So Nerpio and his wife packed up and decided to take their son to Tofino.
They rented a board and a wetsuit and headed to Long Beach, wondering how their son would take to the Pacific Ocean.
But they needn’t have worried. Their son, who now goes by KillaB in skateboarding circles, was a natural.
“Within the first 30 minutes I pushed him into a wave and he got up,” he said. “As soon as he rode that wave and got out onto the shore it was surreal.”
Their son, who didn’t even know how to smile on cue, grinned from ear to ear and gave a thumbs up.
“It connected us, me and him, to be able to do something together,” he said, explaining that the experience actually helped him see autism itself differently. “It changed us, basically. It wasn’t going to be a barrier for us.”
He wondered if he could somehow help other families experience the same sort of joy, and looked to disability surf camps in California and around the world for inspiration.
It just so happened that Nerpio knew the Canadian Surfing Association President, who suggested he get in touch with Rip Curl Canada, which helped launch the event and continues to support it to this day.
Surf’s Up helped get 24 kids surfing for a day in 2012. This year was the third time Nerpio has run the event as a two-day camp. Families came from all over B.C., Alberta, and even Ontario.
There’s the surfing, of course, snacks, lunch for the families and small surfboard trophies shaped from cedar (with a miniature stringer in the middle) for all the kids.
But it’s taken a community to make it happen.
Wildside Grill and Long Beach Lodge both donated lunches. Catherine Bruhwiler donated proceeds from a raffle.
Long Beach Lodge and Stay Tofino both offered lodging discounts. Surf instructors from Pacific Surf School, Tofino Surf Adventures, and Long Beach Lodge Surf club helped the kids catch waves.
What is it that makes the experience of being in the waves so transformative for kids with autism? The same thing that enthrals anyone, Nerpio says.
“For kids with autism, they love the water because they’re weightless,” he said. “It takes a lot of the stress off them.”
It all falls away.
Big thanks to Long Beach Surf Shop that donated the wetsuits and boards for the event. As well as Creative Apparatus from Richmond, B.C., which designed the posters and logos.