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ebook - Reconnecting With Life by Robert Neff

ebook: Reconnecting with Life

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When I returned home to support my widowed mother's fight with breast cancer in 2002, I reevaluated my life's journey and direction. Read more...

7 Views of Downtown St. Petersburg


Experience the seven views from walkabout photographer, Robert Neff as they offer unique views of St. Petersburg, Florida. The postcard set or prints make a wonderful gift for the home or office. Read more...

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Surfers For Autism 2011: Treasure Island, Florida

3 Jun 2011.

by Robert Neff

This article also contains  a link to review tweets that occurred leading up to and during the event.

At 8:30 AM, I was at the 112th Avenue's beach access in Treasure Island, Florida for THE 1ST ANNUAL BAY AREA SURFERS FOR AUTISM. This was their inaugural "West Coast" event. The BP oils spill had cancelled last year's event, so this year they had something to prove!

I was on the beach in my car and I hadn't driven on the beach sand since my Jeep days at the Outer Banks. I was looking forward to this. First obstacle was crossing the bike path that parallels the beach. Up ahead was the parking staff tent. They collected $5 and pointed off into the distance.

As I approached the parking area, I could see the tops of tents and white wind banners. The roving storm fronts made the surrounding horizon look ominous. There were about four rows and the parking staff motioned me to a new row, which meant I was closest to the beach.

I had met Don Ryan, President of Surfers for Autism the week before at International Surfing Day at the Surf Shack. I volunteered to help with the social media aspect to promote and share the Surfers For Autism event. Effective social media needs a plan and message strategy. With one week until the event, time did not permit for more than spreading the word to the people who follow me. Next year, we’ll start six to eight weeks before the event.

On the walk from the car, the text on the white wind banners took shape. It said, “Surfers For Autism!”

The storms of the night before had left, but the early morning winds clocked at 25 mph plus. Storm clouds were building to the South and trying to surround the beach. Raindrops were plentiful enough to notice then would disappear. The storms and winds began subsiding and the volunteers were scrambling to make up for lost time. The tent city was in full force.

The event officially started at 9AM, but families and attendees were already arriving and setting up their base camp. They were settling in for an entire day’s festivities!

In the main tent, I introduced myself to Dave Rossman, the Media Director. We said a quick hello because the volunteers were gathering around the tent, ready to hear Don give the morning brief.

There was just time enough to drop off the raffle prizes I had collected from local vendors, such as “free 20x30 print on canvas from Menual Art.” Dave pointed me to the raffle tent where staff was busy stuffing Sun Bum bags with goodies. Each bag was to be raffled. I watched as the volunteers stuffed the coupons from the Waffle House across the road and flyers from Menaul Art.

Dave started his briefing and the first thing that caught my ear was, "The storms have kicked up the waves, so it's not flat." Some found this amusing because these were "big" waves for the West coast of Florida. We are used to a calm Gulf. Next he detailed a series of instructions to the surf masters and volunteers who were responsible for the kids. One comment was, “We will provide instructions to each child on the beach and then take them out into the water.”

Don's briefing was big on safety. He emphasized surfing's hazards. He said there were 200 kids present. He went over the horn calls and what to do when you heard one. Another caution was given, "If you are in the water or near the beach, always face the surf. Do not turn your back on the waves because you could be in the way of a board!" He added that it was hot and everyone needed to stay hydrated! Smiles showed as he said, "Volunteers get free water."

Sun Bum provided free sunscreen to everyone. Don directed event-goers to their tent and their huge vehicle. Again, he cautioned people to listen for the horns and instructions via the bullhorns. Safety was paramount. Lastly, a free lunch was to be provided after "Hands Across The Sand!" The families would be fed first, then the volunteers.

When I started walking the beach area and scouting the surroundings, kids were already playing in the surf. This was their place to be free of society and enjoy life among understanding people. Expandable boats and kayaks and tri-wheels were among the items that vendors offered for rent.

When I found the Sun Bum tent, the girls were busy spraying people or applying white nose block. Though I have a hat with a broad brim from Outdoor Research and a long sleeve “Under Armour” shirt, my legs would be feeling the sun's rays. They sprayed me down as I held up my arms and did a three hundred and sixty degree turn.

I heard the first call from the bullhorn for instructors to team up with the kids. Small groups started forming around surfboards. This was their day and I was observing.

Instructors grabbed a surfboard and their group tightened their circle. Each surfboard was like a campfire with everyone gathered around to listen to the instructions. The kids intently watched the instructors demonstrate the steps to move from a prone position to standing on the board. Parents hovered a few steps behind.

When it was a kid's turn, everyone cheered every step achieved. Some newbie surfers did this with ease and some were not as sure, but they all had smiles on their faces! For many, this was a new experience. Cheers could be heard up and down the beach.

One mom told me that surfing had changed her son's life and personality. He looked forward to this. Her face beamed a smile!

Once the instructor was comfortable with the young surfer’s performance on land, they moved into the surf, leaving the parents behind. This was the moment!

Instructors and volunteers guided the kids up and over the waves, sometimes through the waves. Some wore life vests and goggles. If a new surfer reacted to the salt water in their eyes, someone was there to help. All ages participated in the surfing. The youngest I saw was four years old.

There were so many people in the water. Don and his staff were watching with a keen, trained eye. You could hear his instructions through the bullhorn.

An instructor was always close to provide assistance and to make sure the kids were safe. Parents stood guard like sentries from the beach.

What a sight to see, kids holding onto the boards. Some were scared, while some were bold. Some kids made it and some fell off the surfboard. Some never stood up but rode the wave with their belly on the board and hands tightly gripping the edges. The thunderous applause and cheering could be heard from a distance. Everyone was pointing at a kid riding the wave or making it near the beach before they fell off the board. Then another extended arm would extend to point to another kid and another kid.

Best moment was when the mom or dad asked if their child wanted to go again! All nodded yes!

Next stop for me was the air inflated slide that stood like a huge hill behind us. This bright yellow and blue monstrosity towered over the beach. The slide had a steep climb and steep drop. At the bottom was a long straightaway that the kids used to spin and slide free of bonds. The more daring kids were going down face first. Parents lined the straightaway and cheered every kid. Their first question was, “Did you like it? Do you want to go again?” A smile, a nod, and they were running to get back in line!

During the previous week I had visited the festival site at Treasure Island. I posted pictures of the beach access points, entrance and places to eat. I walked out to the big slide and met the staff that managed the slide for the city. I told them to expect to be busy with Surfers For Autism. Here is a nod to the city for providing a discount on the tickets.

While at the slide’s base, I met a grandmother who was watching her grandchild enjoy the slide. She pointed to a little girl and said she had been battling a rare form of cancer. The young lady was doing well now. She added that the she had so much energy and a great outlook on life. Her granddaughter had survived a long ordeal and the grandmother remarked it was a pleasure to be out with her.

I told the grandmother that I was scouting the area in advance for people who were to attend the Surfers For Autism event. She had no idea what this was, so I told her about it. She replied that she had a relative who was autistic and described him as “high functioning.” Small world!

I asked several parents how well the staff was working with the kids with autism. They commented that the staff was not trained to work with kids with autism but the parents were used to this. They knew how to teach the staff to approach and work with the kids. A father said that they commonly taught people about kids with autism. He said there was a dynamic range of abilities. He added that this situation is what parents often face when they venture into the public domain.

I detoured to the Sun Bum tent to get re-sprayed with sunscreen. There, I met Hailey, Sun Bum’s public relations representative. She had a new Canon and was asking if anyone knew how to work the video. A guy in line overheard and offered his assistance. That type of helpful camaraderie was felt throughout the event.

Nearby was Julie who was painting a surfing board for the raffle. This was a live demonstration that would take her most of the day to complete.

While exploring the tents and chatting with vendors, I learned more about the autism cause and the struggles faced on a daily basis. Families must battle the insurance industry for speech therapy. Then there are the health issues that can afflict kids with autism. I learned how a hyperbaric chamber treatment can help some kids breathe. While I now have a deeper understanding of the challenges, what I learned just scratches the surface.

I chatted with Hope and Bob. They run H.O.P.E., a Hyperbaric Oxygen Producing Environment to provide treatments to help autistic children who have breathing issues.

Hope and Bob started their non-profit to benefit kids with autism in part because their own experience was a healthcare nightmare. For many years they fought their healthcare provider for treatment approvals. A woman overheard us and expressed her frustration and dismay with insurance companies. She said they refused to authorize speech therapy for her child. The bitterness was evident in her voice. No one had kind words to say about America's health insurance industry that day.

I heard the call for “Hands Across The Sand.” Everyone started moving to the beach and gathered in front of Surfers For Autism tent. Staff along the beach used their bullhorns to instruct participants to spread out and the line kept getting longer and longer in both directions. Some people were practicing “the wave.”

I was walking along the line and talking to families. One had two kids who were autistic. I listened to their story and laughed at their jokes. I wondered which was the kid? They were happy to let me take pictures. It was my pleasure to take a family portrait for them.

In front of us, there was an expandable boat with oars. One child found a place to sit and then other kids came over to play on the craft. Dad cautioned for his son to not touch the oars. Of course, the kid held off for just a little bit longer!

From a distance, Don could be heard saying the helicopter had taken off and would be here in a few minutes. Grab hands and spread out!

The helicopter approached low from the North and the crowd started pointing to it. The helicopter was painted to resmeble a zebra. The kids were gazing and pointing at this “Flying zebra.” On its first approach, Don relayed that the pilot was heard saying, "I am surprised and impressed by the turnout." I would agree because the line kept stretching further down the beach in each direction. It must have stretched more than half a mile! Parents, kids, volunteers all raised their hands with smiles on their faces. The "Hands Across The Sand" event was phenomenal. Did we set a new world record?

When the helicopter left, the crowd moved to the lunch tent. The food was from local sponsors: Barracuda Subs, Tapas Garden, Twisted Tarpon, Original Pizza and Ricky T's. The wings and pulled pork from Ricky T's were some of the best I ever had. Since I am local, I will be making a trip back to Ricky T's for more.

Walking toward the beach, I saw a mom carrying a huge pail of water from the surf. I asked her why she was carrying it? She explained that they kept the water by the tent to rinse feet and hands. However, when she walked back, her autistic son had buried his body in the sand. Mom saw opportunity knocking and slowly poured the water on her son's head! Ah, the smiles and laughter from her son were a joy! Then the child laughed as someone started shoveling more sand on top.

She pointed to toward the surf and said dad was carrying their little girl from the beach. She insisted that I take pictures of their little girl. She explained that she was learning emotions. Mom saw my puzzled look and demonstrated. She would call out emotions and though the little girl was a bit shy, she would respond and then bury her head in dad's shoulder. Think they were proud?

As I walked around he area, I met people from across the state, south Florida, Midwest and New England. I met first time volunteers who knew someone with Autism and just wanted to help.

There were plenty of festivities for the kids! I passed one tent where kids were playing games and trying the hula hoops.

I saw a dad walking by me and he was munching on a snow cone. I said that looked good! With his mouth full of ice, he pointed me to the snow cone tent. Instead of walking over, I pointed the camera at him. He smiled and took a huge bite. He asked if I had his t-shirt in the shot with the Brain Balance's logo. He readily posed for a shot. Actually he was being a ham and I kept taking more shots. Anything for the cause!

At the snow cone tent, there was a long line. Instead of standing in line, I walked up and introduced myself to the snow cone lady, Deb. I asked if I could tweet her making and serving snow cones. She had no idea what “Tweeting” was, so I explained how Twitter works. I would post a picture and add text to describe the snow cone lady and how she served cones for a donation. She was tickled and posed for a photo of her making a snow cone. She was an upbeat person with a great smile. Deb asked if I wanted one and she made me a snow cone. When she asked what flavor, I said, cherry, of course!

Walking out to my car, I saw tired parents loading up their cars. Predictably, everyone had smiles on their faces.

For me, best of all was seeing the kids having fun. Surfers for Autism had expanded my horizon. I saw us on the news at 11 PM that night on WFLA Channel 8, the NBC affiliate in Tampa. The Surfers For Autism event did not gain a mention in the major local paper’s Sunday's edition even though former Governor Charlie Crist attended.

I did feel a sense of accomplishment when people mentioned they saw my tweets or Facebook posts. I felt that social media had once more proven that it does expand our universe!

What an experience and this is just one stop for Surfers For Autism!

Read more stories by Robert Neff

Surfers For #Autism 2011- Hands Across the Sand Helping to bury a kid at Surfers For #Autism: Returns to Treasure Island, Florida on 7 July 2012 Sleepy kid in dad's arms at Surfers For #Autism: Returns to Treasure Island, Florida on 7 July 2012 Lot of Activites for Kids at Surfers For #Autism: July 7 2012 at Treasure Island!

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