Changing the Tides with Surf Therapy » Whalebone

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An interview with Steven Lippman from A Walk on Water

Photos courtesy of AWOW

Bob Marley once sang, “High seas or low seas/ I’m gonna be your friend/ I’m gonna be your friend/ High seas or low seas/ I’ll be by your side/ I’ll be by your side.” None No other organization brings those words to life better than A Walk on Water, which offers ocean and surf therapy to unique children with special needs and their families.On its 10th anniversary, we have caught up with its co-founder and director, Steve Lippman, to learn more about his personal experience in the water and what sets AWOW apart from other organizations.

AWOW canned water
Photo courtesy of AWOW

Whalebone: What makes A Walk On Water so special for the children and families you work with?

Steve Lipman: We are talking about ocean therapy. Introducing families and children with special needs through ocean based surf therapy, bonding, building trust, engaging with them, to give them an experience they will keep forever.

Some children are more skeptical at first – they don’t really adapt immediately. It really takes a lot of perseverance and teamwork to get some of these athletes in the water. Once in the water, it’s quite a transformation. Now, when I talk about athletes, it’s our children who have special needs. We call them athletes.

The children’s families are the real heroes. To be able to do that on a daily basis and then bring them to those events, our goal is to create an experience, not just for the athlete, but for the families.

WB: How does the process work to get kids to get in the water and jump on a board?

SL: There have been times when our surf therapists have been over an hour or more just sitting with the athlete on the board, engaging in the water, picking up seaweed, showing them birds and small fish and acclimatizing to the water. Once we’ve kind of established that experience and trust, we move on to pausing and really engaging with them among their peers in the water, celebrating and sharing the waves. Then there’s a completely different endorphin rush that happens: the water rushes over your feet, occasionally splashes your face and hands, you feel this great energy between the two of you and you truly experience something unforgettable .

WB: How does event production work?

SL: A Walk On Water relies on volunteers. We have amazing volunteers who are also people who donate. They give their time, they give money and that’s what makes it possible. Without our volunteers, I don’t think we have enough substance. We truly appreciate and respect our volunteers.

We have volunteers who have just registered, who are there to support us, and so on. We have our junior ambassadors, who come to engage and begin to learn more about the organization and what it’s like to give back and help those less fortunate than ourselves. Then we have our red suits, those that are mostly water men and water women that are CPR certified lifeguards, to help the surf instructor in the event of a fall or a problem – they’re ready in three seconds. We have our chaperones, who wear yellow shirts, who help put on the wetsuits, put on the wetsuits and pair the athletes with a surf instructor. Then we have our surf instructors, who wear black shirts – men and women who are incredible surfers and truly special individuals – who learn to adapt to a non-verbal, high-on-the-spectrum kid or those which are a bit erratic. And then we also have our blue jerseys which help facilitate the movement of athletes to and from the water.

The children’s families are the real heroes. To be able to do that on a daily basis and then bring them to those events, our goal is to create an experience, not just for the athlete, but for the families. We want families to relax and let us take over now, with their permission, of course. We create these experiences for thousands of families across the country.

WB: Is there a particular aspect of the organization that you find particularly rewarding?

SL: There’s a lot of experiences where there are kids that we’ve worked with for five to ten years—we’ve created relationships with those families—and there’s no better feeling than when you get there and all of that. Suddenly, one of the athletes you’ve worked with for years sees you and runs down the beach with open arms. You feel like it’s on the same level of fun you have with your own kids. You are creating something so unique and special that you want more.

You want to be able to give more and you want to be able to change their lives in a positive way, empowering them to feel that they are special, that they can do it. Putting them in the water, putting them on a board, and just to experience it, that in itself is a huge achievement.

WB: You’ve held events before at Whalebone’s home base in Montauk. Do you like accommodation in MTK?

SL: Montauk is one of my favorite events. I have never seen a community come together like Montauk with open arms and invite us into their homes, restaurants, cafes, hotels and ice cream parlours. I am so humbled by the charm and class that Montauk puts on. I’m grateful to be able to have Montauk as one of our stops and to make us feel like family, it’s something really special for us.

AWOW Steve Lippman
Photo courtesy of AWOW

WB: Can you tell us a bit more about the importance of nature/environment and how it affects our well-being as human beings?

SL: Many of our AWOW volunteers, myself included, help clean up beaches in their local communities, and we always try to leave the beach cleaner than we found after our events. That said, we humans, who derive so much from the ocean, need to do a better job of taking care of it. It breaks my heart to read stories about how our negative human impact has created giant plastic flotillas, killed our sea life and warmed the waters in other unsustainable ways. I urge anyone who has ever experienced the healing power of the waves, or even just looked at the water and found peace, to recommit each day to being better stewards. The ocean needs us right now as much as we need her

WB: When was water changing you?

SL: This is a big question and it has different times for me. First, I was a professional skateboarder in the 70s and discovered surfing when I was 15. I was locked in swimming pools and skate parks. I was just a skate rat, a full-fledged skate rat. Introduced to surfing in Malibu, I became addicted. As soon as I discovered surfing, I wanted nothing more than to surf every moment, every second of my life. That’s when the water changed me.

WB: What change are you looking to bring to the water?

SL: I always wanted to give back, but when [A Walk On Water] first come, I realized, wow, this is something really, really special. I didn’t even know you could feel that. All I want to do is embrace that person, love them, and give back to that person. I just want to see that person smile. I want to see them grow. I want to see them change. I want to build their confidence.

Love changed when I discovered surf therapy and Pat Notaro, who is our founder. He put together a team, me and four other guys and we started from scratch. We wanted to make A Walk On Water so it had its own legs, its own idea so we could control it. We wanted to do it our way and make it special – not just working with autistic children, but working with children and adults of all kinds: wounded warriors, paraplegics, children and adults with obstacles in their lives. The end result was always the same: we gave back.

The other change we are looking to make is to create surf therapy experiences in artificial waves around the world. To be able to create an infrastructure where we can integrate that into the daily routine of these [wave pools] where the insurance pays.

If your child needs to learn to walk or talk, or just work with their bodily functions or whatever, they can choose any therapist they want. Why do families have no choice but to choose insurance-based surf therapy? If you’re landlocked and you live in Texas, and your kid has special needs, you’re like, “I can’t go to Malibu. I can’t go to Montauk. I have to get on a plane to do this. These wave pools are opening up across the country, all over the world, in landlocked locations that can now give families with special needs access to [surf therapy].

I just want to see that person smile. I want to see them grow. I want to see them change. I want to build their confidence.

WB: What can we do to help or get involved?

SL: Well, you can go to www.awalkonwater.org, volunteer, or whatever department you want to get involved in. If you qualify for that part, like water safety or surf instructor, you just sign up for that and if you get in, then you can come to the event and be a part of it. If you don’t get in, don’t be discouraged, come down anyway and be a part of it as a spectator and see what happens. Introduce yourself. And if I’m at the event, I’ll always find something for you to do, or someone will find something for you to do. It’s a way to get involved.

The other way to get involved is to donate to A Walk On Water. If you’re a business, you can pitch your facilities and say, “Hey, I’d like to sponsor your event. I’m in…” wherever you want to be. Or, you can host an event through a personal or corporate donation, and it starts at $10,000 for one host. You get your name on your shirt, you’re on the flyer – you kind of claim it as your own.

There are several ways to get involved. If anyone has a question about this, it’s more than welcome to call and ask, “How can I participate?” That’s what I have to offer.”

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