Florida Keys News
Monday, April 7, 2014
Surfers for Autism turned kids into smiling rock stars

Stash Jackowski was beaming. Using his arms, the 6-year-old paddled a large surfboard around Higgs Beach on Saturday - first his left arm, then his right arm. Over and over again.

Nearly 25 volunteers stood in a circle, up to their waists in the water, and pushed him around in a circle as he paddled. To the average passerby, it was a simple sight. But to his mother, Maryann Jackowksi, it was pure joy.

Stash's (pronounced Stosh) autism diagnosis - a rising developmental disorder that can have a significant impact on a person's communication and social skills - had a reverberating effect on Maryann Jackowski's life.

Suddenly, her beautiful boy became a statistic of children born with the disorder. A myriad of doctor appointments ensued, along with a heavy dose of fear.

"I was afraid to go anywhere, really," said Jackowski, who lives locally in the Keys.

But then she heard about Surfers for Autism, a nonprofit organization that takes autistic children surfing. Not only was it a family beach day for the participants - the organization's founder, Don Ryan, said it was therapeutic for everyone involved.

"When we signed up, they treated us like we were the only people on the beach," she said. "When we started with SFA, Stash was completely nonverbal. But because of SFA, I've seen a progression with his communication skills. Even after his second event, he was clapping and yelling. Sometimes, I think I get more out of it than him."

According to Ryan, there are hundreds of other stories like the Jackowskis'

Many children speak their first words, even though they're 5 or 6 years old, at SFA events.

"Being on a surfboard has proved to allow children to focus more on the present situation. Many parents even claim that their children are attentive for weeks after an event. The sole focus of the day is to make the families and their children feel like rock stars," Ryan said.

Surfers for Autism traces its origins back seven years ago.

"A few of my friends got together - and all of us were touched by autism in one way or another - and we decided to hold just a small event in Deerfield Beach, where we just took children surfing in the ocean," Ryan said.

"We played music, fed them pizza," he said. "We had no idea how it would turn out, and at the end of the day, my life was changed. We went from that one event to now having 14 events annually."

These progressions and stories wouldn't be possible without the outpouring of support from the local community, he said.

For 4th Annual Surfers for Autism of the Florida Keys, more than 100 participants, 50 volunteers and several local businesses showed up to see the organization's therapeutic effects firsthand.

Because of a lack of swells on the water Saturday, Ryan called it a standup paddle-focused event. After a short informational meeting, where Ryan explained that the event was not a fundraiser, and was instead a beach party, volunteers waded out into the cool morning water, standing in a wide "love" circle. One by one, the participants left the safe confines of their mother's and father's hands and were placed on surfboards.

Some children stood, others paddled. And everyone was affected.

"It's a eye-opening experience, being able to help these families who go through so much," said Ethan Parker, a volunteer who drove down from Florida's Treasure Coast. "Being able to make not only the children, but their mothers smile was huge, and definitely worth the trip."

Several local businesses catered the event, donating food and drinks for the event.

Higgs Beach was the second stop on SFA's 2014 tour. The organization will visit 13 other cities in Florida, including Jacksonville, Juno Beach, Naples and Cocoa Beach. The season will conclude in November.

"We don't pick the communities we visit," said Ryan. "These communities pick us. There's a special-needs population in Monroe County, and that's why we were wanted. It all started with doing research on our organization, and people down here fell in love with it just like everyone else has."

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