On a warm summer morning nearly ten years ago, Cliff Skudin of Long Beach, NY stumbled upon a surf outing for autistic children at a local beach. Unexpectedly, he was asked to participate as a coach, and he agreed to take a young boy out for a few waves. The 12-year-old had never spoken before, but after the thrill of those first rides, he communicated with words for the first time in his life. It was an emotional moment for everyone on the beach, and, of course, for Skudin as well. “To be a part of something so powerful was really special to me,” explains Skudin. That experience sparked a life-altering moment for Skudin, soon starting one of the most successful surf schools in the country with his brother, big-wave surfer Will Skudin, and creating a non-profit foundation, Surf For All, based in Long Island. We asked Skudin about the foundation, its impact on the Long Island community, and the lives the program has touched through the restorative power of surf.
What is Surf for All and how did it begin?
We’re a charity that’s dedicated to assisting people with all types of disabilities into the water and onto a surfboard. Jim Mulvaney, a local whose son suffers from autism, started a similar program years before me. His organization would help out with Surfers Healing and other foundations, but it was only an annual event. I saw a need to expand it for not only more people, but also for more frequent outings. That was the focus in the beginning. My brother Will, Jim, and I wanted to make the opportunity local and more available.
Did you help out with those other events before Surf For All?
Will and I always helped out with Izzy Paskowitz and Surfers Healing. But the events with Surfers Healing were limited only to autistic children, and I wanted to take it to all levels of disabilities — the blind and visually impaired, kids with life-threatening illnesses, wounded veterans, and even those with heavy economic disadvantages. The name kind of speaks for itself: Surf For All. I wanted to give that same experience in the water to everyone.
How did you get the word out to the families and the public about Surf For All?
We targeted specific community centers and school districts. By working with their teachers, volunteers, and school administrators, we found it a lot easier in having them bring down their students than having an open enrollment. Rather than hosting one long outing every couple of months, we found it more beneficial to have two outings per month for a couple of hours.
What was the initial response from the community?
I remember in the beginning stages when we took out the blind and visually impaired. People were shocked. “What do you mean you’re taking the blind surfing?” they asked. It took an amazing level of courage and commitment for that first girl to get into the water. Before that, none of her friends had tried it out, but once she got her first wave, she was able to encourage them to give it a shot. She motivated all of her friends after they heard the cheers. That was the trigger.
What are some difficulties in taking these people with disabilities out into the water?
We really try to cater to different disability levels and to give the kids the attention that they each deserve, so we have different surfboards for different athletes. Our instructors are all very skilled in adapting to each circumstance. In the end, though, we really try to obtain a level of freedom for the athlete so we don’t hold them back with overwhelming support on the board. We really want to see them succeed. If they can ride a wave on their own, they are riding on their own.
How do you monitor the safety?
Safety is our number-one concern. Each athlete goes through land lessons in the ocean and surfing safety lessons with their lifeguard-certified instructors before entering the water. Once in the water, you have multiple coaches, life jackets, and catchers on the inside if and when someone wipes out. We also have volunteer EMS personnel on the beach.
Who’s an athlete who comes to mind that has progressed through the Surf For All program
One who comes to mind is a boy named Charlie, who suffers from autism and is another individual who years ago was scared of the water. I had given him some swim lessons, and now Charlie is successfully paddling and surfing his own waves. He even helps set up the boards at Skudin Surf in the morning sometimes, and is a big part of our camp. This year during the NYSEA Open, a summer competition in Long Beach, we decided to highlight some of the more advanced athletes, having an expression session before the final heat of the day. The six participants displayed their skills and I think really inspired everyone who watched.
For those who have been coming back frequently, how have you seen their outlook on life change?
Their level of confidence, even through their struggles, shines through into their everyday lives. If they can achieve riding a wave, they can achieve so much more in life. A boy named Dylan thought that brushing his teeth was an impossible task before being able to surf. It’s all about the kids and their waves; the coaches and the volunteers are just in the shadows. The athletes help the volunteers more than we help them, honestly. When you are a part of something so big, it becomes emotionally uplifting for everyone involved. Surfing is so much more than just riding a wave. In the end, it’s all about sharing that stoke.
How can people become a part of Surf For All?
They can visit our website if they would like to inquire about volunteering. We also accept donations, which help pay for equipment like boards, life jackets, and camp insurance. At some of the outings, we’ve been able to buy pizza or ice cream for the athletes. There are no salaries paid for being involved with Surf For All. It’s always about the kids, and that’s what it is always going to be about.