Waves of Triumph at Indo Jax Surf School
It’s another beautiful, blissful day at Wrightsville Beach. Sun-seekers laze under colored umbrellas reading books or dozing. Beachcombers look for just the right shell as slow-breaking waves lap the shore. Nearby, children and teenagers listen carefully to surfing instructors. Though visually and hearing impaired, they are about to have the time of their lives.
One of their instructors is Jack Viorel, owner of Indo Jax Surf School and president of Indo Jax Surf Charities. A California native who grew up surfing at Half Moon Bay, he played football and joined the swim team at University of California-Davis. He went on to earn his master’s degree in education at the University of San Francisco and began teaching children with special needs.
“It was a rat race in California,” Viorel says. So he and his wife, Aileen, an attorney, left their jobs and moved to Wilmington. After five years in a traditional first-grade classroom, he decided to combine his special needs teaching skills with his love of surfing and developed a nonprofit surf therapy program through weeklong summer camps.
“First, we had a camp for kids who were born with HIV,” he says. “There were not many camps for these children.” After its success, the charity established camps for children with hearing disabilities, autism, blindness and other special needs. Soon, his camps for children with disabilities outpaced his for-profit surfing lessons.
Viorel often heard from parents that there were few exciting activities for their children with special needs. But parents also had safety concerns about surfing.
“Some parents come in saying that they don’t think their children can do this,” Viorel says. He encourages them to step back and let their children try, assuring them that an adult is on the board with them at all times. After a few days, parents begin to relax. Meanwhile, their children acquire more confidence and a new sense of independence.
“They start pushing themselves and overcoming their fear factor,” Viorel says. He notes campers do not have to be excellent swimmers, but they must be at least 4 years old.
That’s how old Sterling Ziehm was the first time he surfed.
“Sterling always loved the water and the ocean, so I knew this would be a good fit as soon as I heard about it,” says his mother, Heidi Ziehm. She says Sterling has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorder, speech apraxia and most recently ADHD.
After that first time surfing, Ziehm says, her son immediately asked to go out again. “Surfing with Jack has been a huge confidence boost for Sterling,” she says. “It’s also a great unique thing he does that he can talk about. This helps him tremendously with his social skills.”
When news of the surf camp spread to the Helen Keller Foundation, administrators there endorsed the program. In 2014, Alerttile, a Wilmington-based company with strong ties to the Helen Keller Foundation, offered Indo Jax Surf Charities a three-year commitment through both Alerttile and the foundation to support the surf camps. It also received a grant from United HealthCare to expand its surfing programs for children with autism, Wounded Warriors, military veterans and their families.
Thanks to these grants, there is no charge to attend the special needs camps, but contributions from families are appreciated.
“We know that special needs families are already spending a lot,” Viorel says.
New surfers are often reluctant, especially when riding the breakers. But when they become more comfortable, many love to wipe out. The campers’ competitions attract fans cheering on the beach.
“When any child gets a good wave, the beach goes nuts,” Viorel says.
However, he notes, surfing is not really the ultimate goal. Surfing is a vehicle and tool through which campers learn to overcome difficulties and improve their communication skills. Those with cerebral palsy improve the use of their arms and legs, while those without sight gain more awareness of the world around them.
Eric Youngquist’s 11-year-old daughter, Emma, is on the autism spectrum and has difficulty expressing her sensory processing problems. She wears noise-dampening headphones. Her father notes that children like Emma are medically fragile and have special needs.
“This is where Indo Jax steps in,” Youngquist says. “It provides a chance for special kids who may not feel like other kids.”
For several days, these children feel extraordinary. He’s noticed an increase in his daughter’s self-assurance.
“They are doing things that ‘regular’ kids might not consider doing,” Youngquist says. “To be a surfer dude or a surfer girl for a few days holds a lifetime of memories. I have seen it time and time again with so many kids and families who have attended Indo Jax Surf Charities camps.”
Ziehm agrees, saying that Viorel has pushed the boundaries with her son, even enabling him to surf by himself – something they weren’t sure he could do.
“Last October, Jack had him up on that board and surfing solo after just a couple of tries,” she says. “Words cannot properly express how much this program means to us. It has truly changed Sterling’s life for the better.”
Ziehm, Youngquist and Viorel all believe the experience provides a new sense of confidence that extends to parents: If their children can surf, they can do anything.
– Elanor Lee Yates