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AWOW hosts a day of surfing lessons at Camp Pendleton for children with special needs

The AWOW team gathers for a photo Saturday at Camp Pendleton event. Photo: Catherine Gregory/imagesbycatgregory.com
The AWOW team gathers for a photo Saturday at Camp Pendleton event. Photo: Catherine Gregory/imagesbycatgregory.com

By Katherine Nowicki

The Beach Boys famously sang, “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” For many at the A Walk on Water event at Camp Pendleton on Saturday, June 6, the chance catch a wave meant much more than just summer fun.

Steven Lippman, AWOW co-founder takes an event participant with special needs along for the ride Saturday at Camp Pendleton. Photo: Catherine Gregory/imagesbycatgregory.com

A Walk on Water offers water therapy for special needs children and their siblings through surf lessons. Five men founded AWOW in November of 2012—Steven Lippman, Jason Logan, Pat Notaro, Sean Swentek and Jason Wolk. Today there are 45 to 50 volunteers regularly involved at each AWOW event as the organization travels from Ventura to Orange counties.

“It’s about all the families,” Logan said. “Our goal is to let families relax and not have to worry about their child. There are people here to support and help them.”

Event coordinator Lee Nichnowitz agreed.

“Some special needs kids speak (for the first time) after surfing,” Nichnowitz said. “It’s amazing.”

Saturday was the second AWOW event held at Camp Pendleton. The first was at the close of AWOW’s season last November and about 200 people attended. This year AWOW began its season at Camp Pendleton and the participation was expected to jump to about 225.

“No money is exchanged,” Wolk said. “We donate everything to the families.”

Smiles on the faces of AWOW co-founder Pat Notaro and this young participant illustrate the mood of the day at the Camp Pendleton event on Saturday.  Photo: Catherine Gregory/imagesbycatgregory.com
Smiles on the faces of AWOW co-founder Pat Notaro and this young participant illustrate the mood of the day at the Camp Pendleton event on Saturday. Photo: Catherine Gregory/imagesbycatgregory.com

AWOW is funded through merchandise sales, and items such as hats and shirts with the organization’s logos were available for purchase at the event. In addition to the surf instruction, AWOW provides food and beverages for participants. Meals are cooked at each event’s location and all ingredients are organic.

Families and volunteers came from as far away as Malibu and San Diego. Saturday was the fourth AWOW event the Malibu-based business Vintage Grocers has taken part in. Lippman originally persuaded founder and market director Eric Fuchser of San Clemente to become involved.

“(Lippman) showed me some videos about what they do. After I dried the tears I told him I was in,” Fuchser said. “You can see the gleam in the kids’ eyes from the beach. The cause is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than anything we could ever do.”

Michael Ford and his family came from San Diego after his 9-year-old son Ethan was invited to the event and his 14-year-old son Tanner, an accomplished surf competitor, saw an opportunity to volunteer.

“The kids are having a great time,” said Ford. “I just saw a kid riding on somebody’s shoulders and I thought that was amazing for someone who can’t walk.”

Participants on the beach watched those in the water and cheered.

Darren Jaffe attended the event with his children in hopes the activity would be a fun bonding experience as well as a safe environment for them to learn about being in the water.

“(The AWOW event) is well-run and they care about the families,” Jaffe said. “There’s genuine caring and community here. You don’t get that a lot.”

Another participant, Maria Rittenberg, seconded Jaffe’s thoughts.

“From the minute we got here, there was such a sense of love, acceptance and understanding,” Rittenberg said. “There are a lot of big hearts here. It brings tears to your eyes.”

When asked about her experience in the water, Rittenberg’s 9-year-old daughter Natalie said, “They helped me out and I got to stand on my knees!”

“Did that make you feel like you could do it?” asked her mother.

“It made me feel like I could do anything,” Natalie replied.

More information is available at A Walk on Water’s website www.awalkonwater.org or the organization’s Facebook page.

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