Each summer for the past 12 years, people, mostly children with special needs, have had a chance to learn about and experience the Nirvana that comes from playing in the Pacific thanks to local nonprofit organization Project Surf Camp.
Project Surf Camp is the brainchild of Jon Taylor who said he used to surf with Morro Bay Surf Company volunteers who put on a camp for kids and asked if they’d ever thought about doing the same for children with special needs.
As a special education teacher with the County Office of Education, he knew there was a huge need for such activities for these kids.
In 2007, he formed a nonprofit and the first Project Surf Camp was held in 2008, and from there, “It’s just exploded,” he said, adding that the organization takes any kids with special needs, just about any ages too.
“There are a number of good organizations out there [doing beach camps],” he said.
Project Surf Camp serves a specific type of person with special needs. They have some specialists on staff, he said, and rely on volunteers, hundreds of them over the years.
In the span of a summer they’ll put on 27 camps serving 300 or so campers with 450 volunteers “that come from all over the U.S.,” Taylor said. They keep each session small, about a dozen kids, and they do more stand-up paddle boarding instruction than surfing.
“We’ve had kids as young as 3,” Taylor said, “and we had a 92-year-old on a board last year. We designed it for the campers and their families. But we quickly realized the impact it had on the volunteers. We have volunteers that come back year after year. They’re really changed by the experience. Our motto is ‘Changing Lives.'”
Matt Makowetski, a former City Councilman who’s also a teacher at a continuation school with some special needs students, said he and his son volunteered 10 years ago and they loved it. He’s been back every year and became a board member of the nonprofit some eight years ago.
“The idea is to change lives,” he said. “We take the kids and parents out of their comfort zones, and it really does work.”
The response for many of the kids is life-changing and life-affirming too, as many who are going through life locked away in their own minds suddenly come alive, invigorated and transformed by the ocean.
Michael Williams, owner of San Luis Sports Therapy in Morro Bay, is a huge supporter.
“My love and passion is to help people who have setbacks,” Williams said. “I see Project Surf Camp as another form of treatment. These individuals may have never touched the water, and you become emotional when you see their faces. It moved me to help.”
The camps are in the mornings and afternoons for some three hours each, and take place six or even seven days per week in summer starting in late July. Sign up online at: projectsurfcamp.org but Taylor said the spaces fill up fast.