Slideshow: Surfers introduce autistic children to the calming sea

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WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH – Over 250 children on the autism spectrum were able to catch some waves Monday morning thanks to a national organization and hundreds of local volunteers.

Surfers Healing, a California-based group that believes in the calming power of the ocean and helps kids with autism get on surfboards, stopped in Wrightsville Beach on its tour around the country. For the last several years, the event has been brought to the shore thanks to employees of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.

Johnathan Vaughan, lead electrical component engineer at the Wilmington-based company, started volunteering with the group due to a personal connection.

“I came out here with my son, who has Aspergers, who’s on the autism spectrum,” Vaughan said of his first experience with Surfers Healing eight years ago.

Vaughan said he eventually started working on the “core team” to help organize the 50 to 60 GE employee volunteers. That core team also includes Facilities Electrical Engineer Warren Bascome, who himself has a family member with autism.

“It’s pretty emotional to see the kids (surfing), because I also look at them and see my nephew out there doing something they never thought they could do, something their parents never thought they could do,” said Bascome, who is also a surfer. “What’s also most exciting is to see the parents. For one day, they could just see their kids having fun, and to relax and be among all the other parents who go through the day-to-day things of being a parent of an autistic child.”

Janet Gwaltney, the event’s family coordinator who works with children with special needs on a daily basis, agreed.

“It’s tough on families – if the kid has a meltdown, they’re ridiculed, the parents are stared at (like) ‘Why aren’t you taking care of your child?’” Gwaltney said. “Here, they can be as normal as they can be. Everybody understands, everybody’s accepting. It’s a day of celebration.”

It was indeed that for Wilmington resident Brian Cwiklinski, who brought his 4-year-old daughter Brianna to the event for the first time.

“I think she loved it. She went out there with ease, no problem at all,” Cwiklinski said. “My heart is filled with joy for her because she had fun. It was our one perfect day, and we’ll definitely be back next year.”

Ensuring that the event will continue in this community with support from local companies is part of David Sledzik’s responsibility on the core team.

“To do this for the kids and the parents is awesome … I think they really look forward to (the event) each year,” said Sledzik, the senior vice president of sales for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. “For them to come back each year is wonderful. We’ll continue to sponsor this as long as I’m at GE.”

For Vaughan, Bascome, Gwaltney and the other volunteers, the event is also something they eagerly anticipate and see themselves involved with for a long time.

“For me, this is our Super Bowl. I look forward to this year round,” said Vaughan. “When you see the kids go out kicking and screaming, crying – as soon as they hit the water, it’s like a sense of calm comes over them. It’s magical, just to see the level of calm that comes over them. It warms my heart. It changed my life forever, so I will always be involved with it.”