The Heart of Surfing

For outdoor sport enthusiasts raised on the Warren Miller series of ski films and titles like On Any Sunday (dedicated to motorcycle racing), the granddaddy of them all has to be The Endless Summer. This travelogue tome to surfing, released in 1966, would set the tone for all others that would follow.


Swirling in and amongst the surfing swell popularized by The Endless Summer was Dr. Dorian Paskowitz. By the time The Endless Summer was released, Paskowitz had already been surfing for more than 30 years. A true pioneer in the sport, Dr. Paskowitz even introduced surfing to Israel at Tel Aviv.

Though the now 84-year-old Dr. Paskowitz is a surfing legend, perhaps his most lasting contribution was and is the Paskowitz Surf Camp, which would most recently spawn Surfer's Healing, dedicated to providing free surf therapy to children with autism.

Dr. Paskowitz, a physician educated at Stanford, wrote a book entitled Surfing and Health, detailing the benefits to mind, body and spirit that surfing brings to its practitioners. With nine children in tow, Dr. Paskowitz and his family definitely lived the surfer's life -- mostly on the road in a camper looking for the perfect wave.

This life-long love would lead to the establishment of Paskowitz Surf Camp at San Onofre, Calif. Dr. Paskowitz's son, Izzy, would eventually run the business, along with his wife Danielle, and base it near Mission Beach in San Diego.

Danielle Paskowitz would bring the surfing roots full circle, as her father was also a die-hard surfer, surfboard builder and played on The Endless Summer soundtrack.

Dr. Paskowitz's ideas in Surfing and Health would ultimately culminate in Surfer's Healing as Izzy and Danielle found the best therapy for their autistic son resides in the breaking surf.

"We did a lot of alternative therapy with our son, and spent thousands and thousands of dollars. Just recently I had to take him to a doctor and it was $300. It's stressful enough having an autistic child and then they lay these costs on you. My heart goes out to the parents, so we wanted to do something to help them for free," says Danielle. "Izzy would take him out on the board, and he would hang out and be super mellow on the beach all day long. We started inviting our friends down and noticed the same effect. It's very therapeutic. To this day (he's 14 now), he stays the entire summer at the surf camp with my husband and loves it."

Surfer's Healing is a day-long traveling camp, in that the Paskowitz instructors travel to areas on the California coast, the East Coast, Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas and for the first time this year, Galveston, Texas.

"There's nothing harder than taking them out the first time. Some of them are screaming going out, but they're always smiling when they come back in. The staff we use have all taken my son out, and can handle anything out in the water the child will toss their way. Children with autism can be unpredictable, so you have to be physically strong, but they know that once they catch that wave it's all worth it," says Danielle.

In order to smooth the way for the children, instructors sing to them, play games and ask lots of questions, keeping the dialogue going with them as they prepare them to take a wave. The instructors stand behind the children and hold onto them on the special surfboards the camp uses.

"They've seen the major meltdowns and how hard it can be, but they still volunteer. They know what to do. They have to be educated on what to expect and how to handle the children," adds Danielle.

Base Camp
Much of the staffing expertise needed at Surfer's Healing has been honed through years of excellent instruction at the week-long Paskowitz Surf Camp, which accommodates all ages -- from children to adults.

The surf camp is based at a campground overlooking Mission Bay. Accommodations are various-sized tents and other temporary structures.

Campers surf in the morning and afternoon, and traditional camp activities -- like volleyball, basketball, horseshoes, campfires, luaus and skits -- are interspersed throughout the six-day session.

In addition to the usual mixed age and gender sessions, Paskowitz Surf Camp runs an adults-only and girls-only week. Danielle says that, over the past nine years or so, the percentage of female campers has gone up to about 50 percent from around 25 percent.

Danielle says that the camp sees a lot of the same families year after year who make it their annual family trip. They come from all over, with the highest percentage coming from the East Coast.

"We have met some really interesting people, and have stayed in contact with so many of them. We've had campers meet here and get married later. They write us letters and tell us how surfing has changed their lives, whether it's the regular camp or Surfer's Healing," says Danielle.

Danielle credits solid instruction and safety, a well-rounded and seasoned staff, a focus on individual customer service and the camp's publicity in such venues as ESPN as factors in their success.

The camp has staff who run the campground and provide entertainment, and instructor counselors who are paired up with the types of campers that mesh best with their ability. The instructor-to-camper ratio is typically 3-1, but goes to 2-1 or one-to-one depending on each camper's needs.

"A lot of the people who come back to camp request certain instructors, and on the other side we have waiting lists for people who want to be counselors and instructors. We'll have someone come in for a year and intern to see what it's like. All the surf instructors have at one time surfed professionally, and most of them we've known for a long time through surfing," says Danielle. "The instructors have been using the same method for years. The students get so much individual attention at camp, and that's why they keep coming back. Safety is our most important thing, so we teach them the proper way to cover themselves if they fall, for instance, because that's the most important thing to avoid injury. The safety instruction comes on Monday before they even get in the water."

In addition to the camp in San Diego, Paskowitz Surf Camp hits the road to Cabo San Lucas and Montauk, N.Y. The Cabo San Lucas trip is adults-only and is not nearly as rustic as a regular camp session, with "campers" staying in four-star hotels.