Special Needs Youth Catch Waves at Malibu Surfing Showcase

Pictured, from left: Mia, Dale Rhodes, Steven Lippman and Grace

When Cara Armstrong of Simi Valley watches her 10-year-old daughter Mia surf, she is awash in admiration. Mia, who has Down syndrome, calls herself a daredevil and is living up to the label with her surfing exploits. Mia was able to stand up on a surfboard without aid during the summer and is becoming quite the experienced water kid. 

“She loves water and is very comfortable in the water,” said Cara, who envisions Mia being able to jaunt into the ocean to catch a wave with her older brother Jack. “As a parent of a child with special needs, when you learn of their diagnosis you are told of all the limitations that they might have, so every milestone your child meets is something we get excited about and celebrate. When you see your child participating in something like surfing with the hope that she will be able to surf independantly, it provides a lot of hope and strength for the journey.”

Mia, who has done tandem surfing for more than a year, and her mom’s surfing dream got a boost late last month at Surfrider Beach in Malibu. Mia shared a board with Dale Rhodes, a former professional surfer. The duo surfed for almost an hour. Along with riding waves, Rhodes and Mia kept an eye out for marine life and discussed science and gymnastics. 

“It was like surfing with a very intelligent adult,” Rhodes of Mia. “She’s beyond her years in intelligence.”

The two happily caught between five and 10 waves, said Mia’s mother. 

“It was fantastic,” said Cara. “Mia had a blast.” 

And she wasn’t the only one. 

Mia was one of 50 special needs young people, ages eight to 20, that took part in the A Walk on Water (AWOW) surf therapy event at Surfrider Beach on Oct. 23. The wave-riding spectacle featured the kids, who mostly have neurological disabilities, receiving surf instructions from AWOW’s surf therapists, a group of experienced watermen, and then riding waves with the surf therapists from the ocean to the beach for around an hour. Once the younger surfers got back to the sand, they were greeted with high fives and smiles. 

The kids then received surfing awards from AWOW officials, while encircled by friends and family who cheered them on. There were plenty of smiles to go around.

Rhodes, one of AWOW’s 48 surf therapists, called the event a huge success.

“It’s pretty lifechanging,” he said. “We want to build self-confidence in these children and teach them something about the ocean and surfing. We are harnessing the ocean’s transformative powers.” 

Rhodes said everyone was in good spirits. 

“It’s hard not be festive when you see a kid with special needs catching a wave at First Point Malibu and riding the wave all the way through,” he said. “It’s electrifying. It strikes a chord with all of us and realize what really is important in life.”

The youngsters hit the ocean with instructors in groups of three, but their activities weren’t limited to wave riding. The children and their families constructed sand castles, munched on donated meals from Vintage Grocers and had the opportunity to use other services provided by the event’s sponsors, which included Paul Mitchell, Michael Schwab, Lululemon Athletica, Katin USA and Coral Mountain Wave Resort.  

AWOW was founded in 2012 by a group including Malibuite Steven Lippman with a goal to help children with unique needs and their families through surf therapy. The nonprofit’s website describes surf therapy as “uniquely built on the concept of including the entire family in connection to the healing powers of the ocean and our natural world. By creating positive, uplifting, and empowering experiences, we are rewriting the expectation of what ‘therapy’ can be.”

AWOW wants kids to gain confidence via surfing.

“We’re equipping our participants to defy expectations, rewrite their futures and emerge from the ocean with one belief: we are all ATHLETES,” the website reads. 

Although surf therapy isn’t a substitute for medical care, in the last decade many studies have noted the benefits of surfing. A 2017 California State University paper said a half-hour surf session improved mood. A 2019 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health article said surf therapy may help soothe mental health issues. 

Cara, a proponent of surf therapy, said the activity has had positive mental and physical impacts on Mia.

“It’s improved her motor skills and core strength,” Cara said. “It’s also given her something to participate in that she can share with her ‘typical’ friends. She can talk about her experience. It’s been great for her social-emotional well-being. She loves to get in the water.” 

The daylong event in Malibu, Rhodes said, gave the youths’ families time to relax. 

“They get to let their hair down and watch their kids surf,” he said. 

Cara said the families of children of special needs have a lot of demands on them. 

“To be able to share in the joy of our children’s accomplishments–to stand on the beach with other parents that you don’t have to explain the shoes that you are walking in because they are walking in them with you–is a great sense of community,” she said. “I really appreciated that I could take a minute to have a breakfast burrito and sit on the beach and watch my daughter accomplish something amazing in the company of other community members.”

Additionally, 10 young members of the Northern LA Boardriders, a Malibu surf club, had a one-hour competition at the beach that resulted in $15,000 raised for AWOW.

AWOW has multiple surf therapy meetings annually on the East and West coasts. The Malibu surf therapy session is considered the organization’s West Coast “Super Bowl” each year. AWOW did not have any events in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic but has had four other events leading up to the Malibu session this year. The final surf therapy gathering of the year will be in Ventura this coming Saturday, Nov. 6.