A Walk on Water, Therapy for All

Surf event for special needs families is equally transformative for volunteers
Corey Sense of Corey’s Wave, a Montauk surf school, surfed with an athlete in A Walk on Water’s two-day event at Ditch Plain last week. James Katsipis

He may have a scruffy beard and more tattoos on his upper body than un-inked skin, but Pat Notaro III is more than the gnarly waterman he comes off as. 

Sure, as a California native and longtime surfer he can fit the stereotype in some ways, but surfing means more to him than just catching waves, and this was clear during the third annual A Walk on Water Montauk Surf Therapy event at Ditch Plain on Friday and Saturday. 

“Surfing is a selfish sport, and it shouldn’t be,” said Mr. Notaro, the founder of AWOW, as it is known, a nonprofit that provides surf therapy to special needs children and adults. 

Although Mr. Notaro founded AWOW just five years ago, he has been involved in surf therapy for nearly 17 years, first through Surfers Healing, an organization that received support from his late father’s memorial fund. 

“The gift of surfing was my dad’s gift to me and that was the greatest gift,” Mr. Notaro said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with A Walk On Water. We’re trying to give that gift of surfing to other people.” 

AWOW began in Hollister Ranch, Calif., with the goal of sharing the thrill and therapy of surfing not only with people with special needs — which the organization refers to as its athletes — but also with their families. 

“The reason we’re here is so we can give back to these families that are 24/7 with their special needs child, sometimes special needs adults, and we try to give them one incredible day of memories,” said Steven Lippman, the lead instructor and president of AWOW. “Surf therapy is all about creating that experience where children and adults are engaged in something they don’t normally do on a day-to-day basis.” 

But AWOW events are therapy not only for the athletes taking part, but also for the volunteers, Mr. Lippman said. 

“Today I took out a little boy named Timmy who is high on the spectrum for autism. His motor skills are slow, his muscle mass is limited, and he’s non-verbal,” said Mr. Lippman. “We must have gotten 20 waves, and we came in and he was so excited and his mom just hugged me and started crying. She said, ‘You don’t understand, this is so amazing, thank you so much,’ and I just started tearing up. It’s something simple like that, that puts life into perspective. It’s very humbling.”

Although AWOW’s first event had just six kids, the idea was to surf, spend the day together, have lunch, and surf again. The bond that developed between the athletes, parents, and volunteers made it an instant hit. The organization outgrew its original location and expanded to Ventura, Malibu, Huntington Beach, and Santa Cruz, Calif., and opened an East Coast chapter in Montauk three years ago.

“You help these kids grow psychologically, emotionally, physically, and it’s just groundbreaking work,” said Walt Lindveld, the head of the East Coast chapter. 

Mr. Lindveld, who has a son with Down syndrome, has had a unique experience with the nonprofit as both a parent and a volunteer. “There’s the whole aspect of making the athletes feel special. To take these kids who are generally the quiet ones, the ones on the sideline, and be able to empower them, make them feel special, feel like they’re the heroes of the day, that is what the therapy is about for me as a parent.”

While Mr. Lindveld attests to the healing properties of surfing because of the transformation he has seen in his own son, others talked last week about the transformative effect of just one surf session. 

During one session, Mr. Lippman, better known as Uncle Lippy to the athletes, heard a non-verbal 4-year-old utter his first word: “Surf.”

Mr. Notaro has a similar story with a 6-year-old, Matthew. “The first time I took him out, I couldn’t catch a wave, but after that I was determined and I was able to pick him up and hold him in my arms,” Mr. Notaro said. “Now Matthew can walk because he’s been going through therapy, and he’s 16, but when we’re together in the water he will sing to me, and when I get up, he will know I’m pulling him up and I can get him to stand on the board.”

Scientifically the jury may still be out as to whether surfing is therapeutic for children on the autism spectrum, but Mr. Notaro and the hundreds of surf instructors, beach and water safety volunteers, athletes, parents, and spectators that made the Montauk event the largest one yet need no further proof than what they saw on Friday and Saturday. 

“Nike says, ‘Just do it.’ We’re like screw it, we are surf therapy,” Mr. Notaro said. “And we are.”

The organization hopes to add more events and new chapters on the East Coast, but for now, it is looking to return next September. 

A Surfer’s Healing camp for children with autism will take place at Ditch Plain tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration is closed, but people have been invited to visit and cheer on the participants.

Jackie Pape
Jackie Pape
Jackie Pape
Jackie Pape
James Katsipis
Jackie Pape
James Katsipis