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Pure Vibes Surf Camp for Autistic and Challenged Kids

It’s a beautiful early May Saturday morning. At 27th Street in Del Mar, there are only a handful of surfers out because the waves are only knee high, knee-high for grown men, that is.

In a few minutes, Rick Sutera will teach his first lesson of the day to a three-year old, Jesse Nangle, who can already stand up and surf.

Sutera, a Solana Beach resident, is eager for Jesse to arrive. Last year when he was two, with Rick’s help, Jesse was standing up and going down the line of waves that must have felt to him like they were the biggest kahunas ever.

It’s hard enough teaching a normal toddler to surf, but Jesse is no normal kid. Jesse has Autism.

And Sutera is no normal surf instructor and his surf therapy camp, Pure Vibes is no normal surf camp.

Sutera, whose older brother has a mild mental disability, decided to forgo a stable career as a special-needs educator to teach the Pure Vibes system of surf therapy.

Since Pure Vibe’s inception in 2003, Sutera has instructed over 70 children one-on-one how to surf. His students have conditions ranging from Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, A.D.D., Bipolar disorders and many other disabilities.

“I haven’t seen Jesse in nine months,” says Sutera, who is 30 and a native of Chadwick Beach, New Jersey, a blue-collar town with a casino serving as the backdrop to a break which spits “perfect barrels” in the winter months; when water temps plummet to 36 degrees.

“I’m curious to see if Jesse has gotten more expressive,” says Sutera, who also tutors children with special needs. Most kids with autism, like Jesse, have a difficult time expressing themselves, especially verbally.

“When I started with Jesse, he was 2 1/2 years-old, weighed 28 pounds, and was totally nonverbal,” says Sutera, a former co-captain of the SDSU surf team and an E.S.A. (East Coast Surfing Association) standout.

Sutera’s dream of professional surfing was squashed by a permanent injury to his talus bone. Having a nagging ankle impediment doesn’t make surfing easy for Sutera and the fact that he teaches kids with serious physical handicaps such as cerebral palsy makes his job that much more demanding than any normal surf camp instructor. (With more severe CP cases, Sutera will cradle a child with one arm and use his free hand as a break.)

Steering a 9-foot soft-top tri fin with precious cargo onboard, Sutera dodges whitewater beachbreak with master precision. After surfing for 25 years, Sutera makes paddling look easy, but steering a small child with a disability must be a God-given talent.

Sutera’s selflessness and dedication to helping the less fortunate should be recognized by the surf community. Watching Jesse stand to his feet and ride a wave is pure bliss, as are the expressions of joy emanating from the faces of Jesse’s parents.

“It was super exciting to see him stand up his first time,” says Jesse’s mom, Amy Nangle, who is standing just onshore while her husband Mike wades in knee-high water taking action photos of their special shredder.

“Jesse couldn’t even swim last year,” says Mrs. Nangle. “He’s getting more expressive verbally now and I think the surfing with Rick has helped tremendously in that area along with his balance, strength and coordination.”

Kate Brownie is another proud mother of an autistic child who benefits from Sutera’s surf therapy sessions. Her seven-year old son, Jack, has made remarkable gains in the water. Today is his fourth consecutive lesson with Rick. He had never surfed prior to this year.

“The first lesson,” says Mrs. Brownie, “Jack refused to get on his tummy but by the second lesson he was standing up with Rick’s assistance.”

Prior to his third lesson, Jack’s occupational therapist worked with him on simulating paddling on his belly at school and standing on his feet. Judging by the last wave that he caught, riding it all the way until the board washes onshore (Sutera steps off the board and lets Jack surf solo for the last few yards), Jack’s work at school has paid off.

“This morning, when we got to the beach,” says Mrs. Brownie, “Jack got so excited when he saw Rick. He looked at me and I could see he wanted to express something.”

After a little coaxing from Mom, Jack said, “Mom, go surfing.”

“For a child with a lot of speech and communication issues, the fact that he used expressive speech, even if it was only three words, was a tremendous accomplishment,” says Mrs. Brownie.

Before teaching any of his students how to surf, Sutera examines professional reports provided by physical and occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists and school districts.

Although Sutera certainly had no problem staying afloat while surfing competitively, he’s finding out that he’s having a hard time doing it financially. He has trained a potential instructor, including CPR and First Aid certifications, but the liability insurance is steeper than a 20-foot Fijian Cloudbreak face. So for now, Sutera is the only instructor.

It’s time for the surf community, including local surf-shop owners and major corporations to provide funding to keep Pure Vibes afloat. Hopefully, Pure Vibes will evolve beyond San Diego’s coastline as the premiere surf therapy institution. Maybe it can one day receive as much recognition as SurfAid International has.

With $200 boards to buy and many other expenses to pay out of pocket such as wet suits, insurance, promotional and educational materials (Sutera uses picture cards and rewards to get his verbally-challenged students acclimated to following instructions), Sutera says he is barely able to keep the program going.

Rabbit Bartholomew, legendary surfer and director of the prestigious ASP Surf Tour, is a close friend of Sutera’s.

“Rabbit’s a good referral as well as my mentor,” says Sutera. “But when it comes down to getting money from him, he’s so busy running the biggest tour that it’s a difficult process. I’d love for him to get in touch with somebody like Bob Hurley on my behalf.”

Perhaps Sutera is too good natured; too full of pure vibes to pimp himself. If the major companies saw his website (www.purevibessurfing.com) and came down to see it in action, they’d realize that very few surf camp in the world like Pure Vibes exists.

Although funding is critical to Pure Vibes’ future, today, watching Sutera reach autistic and other special needs kids like no other is priceless.

Judd
Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.