For the third year running, Chevron Surf Camp teamed up with the local nonprofit Friendship Circle this week to offer special needs kids in the South Bay a chance to learn how to surf.
Twenty-two local special needs kids participated in what organizers and parents called a judgment-free environment during the weeklong surf camp held near the Hermosa Beach pier.
"It is really good for (the kids) because it gives them the opportunity to do something where someone is not judging them," said Chris Ashley of Torrance, who brought her son Peter to the camp for the third year in a row. "If they were in a class that didn't have a lot of other special needs kids, they would get criticized a lot by their peers," she said.
"It is a unique opportunity and we are really glad it is there... Without it, we would have a bummer of a summer," said Ashley.
Ashley's sentiment was one that was echoed by parents as they gathered on the beach following Thursday's lessons.
"It is an opportunity to develop relationships and make friends with kids who are a little more typical, which is hard sometimes," said Manhattan Beach resident Michael, who was waiting to pick up his son Sam. "They are really appreciated for their differences instead of resented because of them."
Friendship Circle director Jason Flentye said that although the kids go to the beach on outings all the time, actually getting in the water and on a surfboard is a truly unique opportunity.
"It is a completely accepting environment," said Flentye. "The act of surfing and having their friends next to them is sort of encouraging them to do something where there is a definite feeling of accomplishment."
In order to successfully offer that unique opportunity, the camp relies heavily on local teenagers who volunteer their time to provide a high instructor-to-student ratio. At a minimum, all students are paired with two instructors and some kids have up to six.
"The people that work here have such good hearts," said Manhattan Beach resident John Holliday as he sat on the beach and watched as instructors helped his son Anthony. "They are out there working with our children, giving them something that nobody else can really do with them."
For the volunteers and directors of the camp, the experience of working with Friendship Circle is mutually beneficial.
"We get just as much out of it as they do," said Chevron Surf Camp's Vince Ray, a Redondo Beach resident and surf instructor of 25 years. "It is just so much fun to see a smile, give somebody a high five... It is just inspirational because they try so hard."
Although not every student will eventually stand up on a surfboard, simply catching and riding a wave on their knees or stomachs is quite an experience for many of these kids.
"He was up on the board for about three seconds standing up," said Michael of his son Sam. "I asked, 'How did that make you feel?'" Michael recalled. "He said, 'Proud'."