Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Half Moon Bay Surf Club members Kelby Kramer (black wetsuit) and Griffin Tietz (blue wetsuit) play with Benetton Bookman (blue life vest), a 6-year-old autistic boy, and his 7-year-old brother Russell Bookman (black life vest) at Dunes Beach during the Square Peg Foundation’s surf day.
Clad in wet suits and with surfboards in tow, a group of volunteers, families and children with special needs gathered on the coast to watch whales, play under the warm sun and learn from one another.
The Square Peg Foundation teamed up with the Half Moon Bay Surf Club to provide families with autistic children a truly special day at the beach Wednesday.
Square Peg began as a therapeutic horseback riding program in Half Moon Bay 10 years ago and has evolved into offering camp programs and summer surf days as a social solace for families who may struggle to find sporting activities amenable for children with developmental disabilities, said the nonprofit’s founder Joell Dunlap.
Dunlap, surf club teens and at least a dozen families with special needs children gathered at Dunes Beach Wednesday morning for this year’s first Square Peg surf day.
“One of the unique things about the surf program is that it’s for the entire family. So to put the dynamic around ‘no it’s not we can never go to the movies because our son is autistic or because our brother had a meltdown in this restaurant, we can’t go here now.’ It’s we get to go to this special beach day because we have an autistic kid or brother. So it was a beautiful way to flip that dynamic around,” Dunlap said.
Square Peg generally caters to children on the autism spectrum but also works with those with Tourette’s or Usher syndromes, Dunlap said.
Dunlap said she was inspired to start Square Peg through her own experience and understanding that having a child with special needs can make it challenging for families to engage in social activities.
“My own son had some learning difficulties and I was a young mom and I felt really isolated and unsupported,” Dunlap said. “As a parent with a son who learned differently, and meeting with other [similarly situated] parents, I kind of figured out their same sense of isolation and I just really felt like those were the people I could serve the best.”
Ivette Bookman said she traveled from Santa Clara with her husband and two children for the rare outing where she was able to relax while surf club teens patiently played with her 6-year-old autistic son Benetton.
“It is really hard, but we take him everywhere we go,” Bookman said. “It’s so hard for me to come to the beach, I can’t. Especially because he doesn’t understand danger.”
Bookman said she refuses to become a parent who avoids going out due to the challenges of having a child with learning disabilities. However, it’s been a struggle to find no-cost activities suitable for her particular family dynamic, Bookman said.
The Square Peg surf day was just the second time in six years Bookman said she found a free sporting activity the whole family could enjoy.
“As a parent, you feel very thankful that there are other people willing to help your kids, especially with autism. That’s a big thing for us as a parent,” Bookman said. “We were looking for opportunities, and this is a big opportunity.”
Dunlap said Square Peg will host a second surf day Friday and runs her family camps free of charge. Square Peg hosts three families on its ranch at a time and had 18 slots opened this year; within two hours of posting the notices, the spots were filled. This speaks to an incredible need for these types of programs and there are currently 40 people on the wait list, Dunlap said.
“Finding programs that are appropriate and safe, that understand sensory difficulties because autism is a spectrum … so finding a program that’s flexible enough to adapt, that is kind and compassionate enough to deal with a complete meltdown and realize that it’s not a child acting spoiled, it’s a child having a neurological storm that he needs to work through,” Dunlap said.
Members of the Half Moon Bay Surf Club and junior lifeguard program joyously surrounded Square Peg kids with supportive hands to teach them how to surf, play in the water and bask in the sun.
Surf Club coach Rocky Raynor said these camp days are meaningful for all involved.
“The surprising thing for me was when we had our first camp, how much it affected our kids, our surf club kids. They all of a sudden got it. It was a day not about them, it was a day about others and how these special needs kids touch their heart,” Raynor said.
Dunlap said expanding Square Peg from a horseback riding program into offering summer surf days was a great transition. Children with autism can struggle with a variety of sensory triggers from florescent lights to the sound of a refrigerator, Dunlap said. But the physical activity of surfing combined with the rhythmic motion of the ocean has proved to be therapeutic for many Square Peg kids, Dunlap said.
“Surfing is a passion and it’s a lifestyle, so any time we can have an activity that’s so engrossing and that people are passionate about, when they offer that to families who might have some different struggles, we’re doing something really great,” Dunlap said. “It’s really about the support. … Every one of these kids is surrounded by a bunch of hyperactive teenagers with huge smiles on their faces and I think that’s really where the specialness happens.”
For more information about the Square Peg Foundation visit www.squarepegfoundation.org.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106