‘An awakening of the soul’: Helen Keller Foundation supports local surf camps

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Jack Viorel and his Volkswagen bus at beach access 10 on Wrightsville Beach. Photos by James Mieczkowski.

Jack Viorel is a cool dude.

He teaches surfing for a living, drives a renovated Volkswagen Bus, and casually sports a T-shirt, board shorts and sandals. And he has his own TED talk.

Surfer stereotypes and lecture series aside, there is more to Viorel than just being a cool dude. His connection to the water– and in particular his use of water to instill “an awakening of the soul” –inspired Keller Thompson, Vice President of the Helen Keller foundation and also the American icon’s niece— to sponsor the local surf instructor’s monthlong surf camp.

A surfer since the age of nine, Viorel grew up learning to ride giants in Northern California’s Half-Moon Bay. In the surfing world, Half Moon Bay is notorious for its proximity to the big-wave surf spot, Mavericks, where waves have been recorded for topping out at over 80 feet.

Conquering these monsters of the Pacific became a way of life for Jack and soon he was hooked. But despite all those early years surfing at Mavericks, the most intimidating ride of his life began when he landed his first job as a teacher for at-risk, medically fragile and special needs children.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I was stoked to have a job, but I was terrified,” Viorel said. “I didn’t even know what autism was back then and I had no business managing a classroom for at-risk youth. But I knew from surfing that whenever you’re out there and it’s big and you’re scared, you either commit 100 percent or you get out of the water.

“There is no in-between.”

So he committed 100 percent.

“Little by little I improved and one day it kind of just clicked for me— kind of like surfing can click. You paddle in, you get to your feet, you make the drop, the bottom turn and you lock into this incredible ride. Well for me it was clicking in the classroom and I locked into this incredible wave that I’ve been on ever since.”

The next step for Viorel was to connect his two passions. He knew that surfing could be used as a vehicle for teaching children with special needs, but the rough surf of the Pacific Ocean did not offer the most suitable conditions. On a trip to Wrightsville beach in 2006, he found his ideal location.

“I found the beautiful warm water and gentle waves to be the perfect place to learn to surf,” Viorel said.

He and his wife, Aileen, opened the Indo Jax Surf school, which would include anyone and everyone who wanted to surf. After years of cultivating staff and equipment, Viorel created a curriculum that focused on self-esteem first and surfing second.

By implementing the initial confidence in a student first he believed the final results of surfing would open the lid to much greater things in the student’s life.

The Indo Jax Surf Charity was created so that Viorel could extend the reach of his surf lessons and offer surf camps for kids with juvenile diabetes, individuals with autism, soldiers of the wounded warrior project, orphan girls from India, and most recently children that were deaf or blind.

Visually and hearing-impaired surf camps

Alex Munroe, president of the Wilmington-based company, AlertTile, heard about what Viorel was doing locally and partnered with him. Munroe began AlertTile because his mother was visually impaired and he wanted to create detectable warning systems on sidewalk crossings and platform edges for the visually impaired.

“I grew up surfing and when I met with him [Jack] I saw his excitement for what he was doing with people all over the country and I knew I had a partner,” said Munroe.

Munroe saw Viorel’s successful use of the water to inspire confidence and was reminded of a story he heard about Helen Keller. When Keller was first struggling to connect a line of communication with her instructor Anne Sullivan, the instructor found that running water over Keller’s hand and spelling the word water in her other hand opened an understanding between the two—and ultimately created what Keller described as “an awaking of her soul.”

Munroe reached out to Keller Thompson about Viorel’s idea. During the month of July, the Helen Keller Foundation and AlertTile are sponsoring IndoJax Charity’s two-week summer surf camp, which dedicated a week of surfing from July 13 to 17 for the visually impaired and the week of July 27 for the hearing impaired.

“It really is an opportunity to show the world that people that are blind and visually impaired can do all kinds of things,” said Thompson. “To watch these kids face their fears and show the courage to go out and surf is amazing. I have to say that not many blind people around the world do a lot of surfing— and we’re very choosy about the events we sponsor—so when Jack and Alex came to me I thought it was just so awesome to give these kids this opportunity.”

For Viorel, the meaning behind the two weeks of surfing with these children is immense and more than surfers taking other kids out surfing.

“In the spirit of this camp we’re doing something that’s way out of what they would normally do and there’s this charging—this will to do something more that I hope stays with them forever,” Viorel said. “This is how Helen Keller advised people to live their lives.”

“This idea that surfing is legitimate—it’s more then just a bunch of surf bums surfing—we’re onto something. That’s why these camps are growing and we have people getting on board. You can’t go see a doctor to get what we’re giving, this is something you can only achieve right here on the beach.”

If you find yourself on Wrightsville Beach you can probably find Viorel and his family around marker 10 surfing with new, old, and future friends.

Click here for more about IndoJax Surf Charity and here for the Hellen Keller Foundation.

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James Mieczkowski is a news reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at james.m@portcitydaily.com On Twitter: @mieczkowskiPCD