Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District's Prep Academy students hit the waves

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“This is one of the things I’m most proud of as an educator,” said Eric Caballero, the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District athletic director. “It’s one of our prouder moments in education.”

Students in the district’s Prep Academy are hitting the waves for the first time this fall in Long Beach, taking part in a special program designed to teach those with physical and intellectual disabilities how to surf. The Prep Academy is a special-education program that aims to give students up to age 21 educational, recreational and vocational experience.

Cliff Skudin and his brother Will, a professional big-wave surfer, own and operate Skudin Surf in Long Beach. After trying for years to connect with a local school district, they finally paired up with the Central District.

Cliff Skudin, a phys. ed. teacher at Long Beach High School and president and cofounder of the nonprofit organization Surf for All, told the Herald that the organization specializes in teaching kids with physical or developmental limitations to surf.

“It’s very specialized,” Skudin said. “We have a one-on-one with groups — we use specialized equipment” such as adaptive equipment for those with disabilities.

Surf for All was formed in 2002. “It’s very unique,” Skudin said. “Surf therapy is something used in other parts of the world, like Hawaii, California and Australia — places where surfing is more mainstream.

“For the past decade, I’ve been trying to give surf therapy to a [school] district,” he added. “Eric — he’s an incredible director and was really an advocate,” Skudin said of Caballero. “He really made it happen.”

Caballero met a Long Beach-based psychologist, Jeanine Sorenson, in June, and learned about the potential of having students in the Central District’s special-needs program learn to surf. According to Caballero, the program extends far beyond the physical activity — it also involves environmental awareness and, Skudin said, understanding the therapeutic qualities of the ocean.

Throughout the summer, Caballero worked with the district Board of Education to get everything where it needed to be in order to meet the needs of the students. The trustees were “completely on board,” as was Superintendent Mike Harrington. 

Last Friday, 16 students of varying disabilities rode a bus to Long Beach for their third surfing lesson. The anticipation was evident, with many of them clearly eager to get into their wetsuits and to be fitted with other necessary gear. Each paddled out into the surf with an instructor.

“[Some of the students] weren’t ready to go in the water,” Caballero said of their first week. “By week two, those kids were ready.”

“They think it’s the coolest thing to be in the surf shack,” he went on. “For them to have the opportunity to do this — every week for 10 weeks — they look forward to it at the end of the week.”

The students will surf for the next seven weeks, and after seeing the positive response from the Prep students, the district is looking to get other students involved next spring. “I know how much the kids will benefit from it,” Skudin said. “It carries into their self-confidence — and their day-to-day routine.”

Surf therapy, which Skudin described as a “holistic” alternative to traditional therapy, can treat anxiety, PTSD and depression, among other conditions. “To put surfing in the [student’s] toolbox — to teach them to use surfing — it’s different,” he said.

The response from the students, he said, has been “incredible.” “The teachers — the aides — tell you how excited the [students] are,” he said. “You can tell they’re stoked to do something new. It’s only an hour out of their day, but it carries through to home — it carries into schoolwork.

“I’ve had kids with autism that were completely mute come out of the water and say, ‘I want more,’” Skudin recounted. “Something like that is so powerful.”

Last Friday, the fun the neophyte surfers were having was almost palpable. One, Keith Mickity, excitedly told the Herald how much he loved his new sport.

Surf for All has created programs for groups such as Camp Anchor, for those with special needs, and the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. But the partnership with the Central High School District was the first of its kind on Long Island. Soon after Bellmore-Merrick’s program began on Sept. 17, Long Beach Schools also started taking part in Surf for All. The Prep Academy students’ lessons are on a different schedule than the local students’, so each group can get as much attention from instructors as possible.

“Cliff and Will tried for so long [to work with a district] and were unsuccessful,” Caballero said. “Bellmore-Merrick broke down that door — and I was happy to be part of that, so to speak.”

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