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Sea change: Local nonprofit strives to give special needs gift of the ocean

Posted: Wednesday, Jul 7th, 2010

Lewis Middle School special education teacher Mike Cole and Flamson Middle School Principal Gene Miller are participating in helping raise funds for Project Surf Camp. Above, images from Project Surf Camp. Photos courtesy of Mike Jones.

Regardless of disabilities, the people at Project Surf Camp believe that everyone should experience the wonders of the sea.

Local charitable and educational nonprofit organization Project Surf Camp is currently up for a $100,000 grant from the Today Show and the Pepsi Refresh Project.

The nonprofit is designed specifically for individuals with specials needs.

The organization believes that although great strides have been made in recent years in increasing access to goods and services for special needs individuals, opportunities for leisure or recreational activities are often still difficult to access. The group will continue to catch waves in Morro Bay through the month of August.

"Sometimes we forget, especially living on the coast, that not everyone has experienced the ocean. Our hope is to introduce Project Surf Camp uses to surfing, the beach and other ocean activities as an educational modality to build self-confidence, self-esteem and self-efficiency in individual with special needs," read a recent press release urging people to vote for the cause online.

The project is one in four up for the chance to win the $100,000 grant.

Project Surf Camp has given opportunities to one group in particular those with disabilities who organizers said have been overlooked when it comes to hanging ten.

The group became a nonprofit about three years ago, and a large donation allowed the group to grow substantially since then.

"We had someone come to us who was willing to give us a donation that really pushed us from seven camps a summer to maybe 15 camps," said Lewis Middle School special education teacher and Project Surf Camp educator Caleb Cole.

According to Cole, all Project Surf Camp volunteers are special education teachers, many with masters' degrees in the field. Board President Gene Miller is principal at Flamson Middle School.

"There are not a lot of special education teachers that can teach surf camp," Cole said. "I've surfed my whole life, and I've taken many, many kids out on their first surf lesson, but I would never in my right mind take someone out without the right support, a lifeguard or without understanding how to work with individuals with special needs. That's the sort of unique set up that we have. It's great. It allows us to take kids out in the water that without this opportunity would not be able to do it."

Challenges of special needs kids which range from Autistic children to those who are mentally delayed can include motivation, paying attention, following directions, communication and confidence, according to Cole.

"I think the way that we overcome most of these things is this great motivation and this joy," he said. "Parents of children with special needs understand a lot of the limitations that are there, and they really love the fact that they can break those [limitations] down and get to have their kids do something they'd never get to do. It's also neat to see the kids so happy and motivated. They grow. They have social and emotional growth and communication development. It's just a neat development to do a lot of social teaching, which is really big for special needs."

According to Cole, Project Surf Camp is suffering due to budgetary cutbacks that could be remedied with the $100,000 grant funding.

Although organizers ask for a donation when kids sign up for classes, children who are unable to provide any money are welcomed into the group with open arms. In addition, the group has grown, with interest ballooning from 150 kids joining the class throughout the summer last year to 170 signing up before the first day of camp in 2010.

"This year we've worked twice as hard on fundraising than ever before, and literally we have half the amount of money we had last year," said Cole. "What the $100,000 could do is take care of our operational budget for three years."

Future goals for the group include possibly teaming up with local amputee surfers as well as expanding classes to Pismo Beach.

People can still go online to vote for the cause, helping to ensure that the grant money goes toward surfers with special needs.

"It's a longshot to win this thing but I think people understand that we need funds, and we also need volunteers and people can look at our Web site and learn how to volunteer," he said. "You don't have to have experience surfing to volunteer, just experience working with individuals you can put on a wetsuit and get in the water and really be an effective volunteer.

People can vote for Project Surf Camp at www.msnbbc.msn.com/id/38027143.

The deadline for voting is today at 6 p.m. Pacific time. For more information, visit www.surfcamp.com.

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