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Sep 11, 2008 1:26 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Community rallies around autistic surfers

Sep 11, 2008 1:26 PM

Volunteers and families from East Hampton, Montauk, around Long Island and from as far away as Hawaii got a strong dose of community spirit when they gathered to take 120 autistic children and a few adults surfing Friday, September 12, at Montauk’s Ditch Plains Beach.

“Awesome!” 8-year-old Erick Santopietro shouted into the wind as he dried himself off after taking his turn surfing in the strong arms of a professional volunteer surfer. The boy’s mother, Christina, beamed with pride and said, “He loves the water and has no fear about it. It’s just so soothing for him.”

The exciting day at the beach was free to the 350 children, parents and volunteers in attendance. The day was capped off by a private concert for the adults by musician and surfing aficionado Jimmy Buffett at the Second House Tavern in Montauk.

The surfing event was the second annual edition. Last year’s first run was on a sparkling and sunny September day. This year, the weather was cloudy, cool and breezy, and temperatures hovered around 70 degrees, though all swimmers said the water was warm.

Manorville resident Nancy Herbert, grandmother of Gregory Mortenson, 7, wept as she watched her grandson ride a wave into the beach.

“Just the fact that he is out there is pretty amazing,” she said.

Professional surfer Garrett McNamara, of Hawaii, who has surfed all over the world and has volunteered in several locations, said for many kids, the experience of surfing is transforming. “It really changes them. They start looking you in the eye and talking to you,” he said. “For a lot of them, this experience is like walking on the moon.”

The event, which was not publicized, was sponsored by three organizations: Surfers Healing, a San Diego, California-based non-profit organization devoted to taking autistic children surfing at beaches around the world; East End Disability Associates of Riverhead, and Long Island Families Together, of Amityville. Both local groups support families with mentally disabled children. Community businesses, including East Hampton Point restaurant, Gosman’s Dock and Winter Brothers, and private individuals provided cash donations, food, beverages, ice, trash removal, and portable toilets. Everything for the event was donated.

The East Hampton Town Parks Department and Department of Human Services also lent support to the event. They helped the organizations get permits, arrange for parking, and obtain the services of volunteer lifeguards.

“I was watching John McCain and Barack Obama on TV last night,” said Edna Steck, the town’s director of the Department of Human Services, “and they were talking about communities and service. And I thought of this day and realized this is it—all these organizations coming together. This is service to the community.”

Lisa Meyer Fertal, CEO of East End Disability Associates, agreed, and added that the people of Montauk and East Hampton care about the water and about children with disabilities. “They are very generous,” she said.

That night, a raucous, free-wheeling concert by Jimmy Buffett—held under tents because of pouring rain—had people singing and dancing in the aisles and batting beach balls around in the air while the good-natured Buffett had a grand time taking requests for songs shouted from the 400-plus audience. During the two hours and 20 minutes he played, Mr. Buffett sang a lot of favorites, among them: “Son of a Son of a Sailor”; “One Particular Harbor”; “Come Monday”, and his signature, “Margaritaville.”

In addition to parents and volunteers, who were admitted for free, in the audience that night were also benefactors who paid $100 for general admission tickets, and $1,000 for tickets and dinner at Second House Tavern. A silent auction also was held. More than $125,000 was raised for East End Disability Associates, Long Island Families Together and Surfers Healing.

Mr. Buffett was on the beach during the surfing event, mingling easily with the crowds and praising the parents and caretakers of autistic children. Such children have limited social and communications skills, often are unable to speak or make eye contact, and can be extremely difficult to care for. In 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that one in 150 children is diagnosed with autism.

“Last year, I came out and thought that this is such a great thing to do, I wanted to support it and keep it going,” Mr. Buffett said. “This is as much for the parents and the caregivers as it is for the children. It takes real courage and dedication to raise these kids. The parents don’t get the recognition they deserve. So it’s good for them to have a day off and to have a beer afterward.”

“The surfing community in Montauk is really connected to this thing, so we decided to amp it up some this year,” he said, referring to the concert. Mr. Buffett put on a smaller show, more like a jam session, at last year’s event.

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