La Jolla Shores surf camp for special kids grows in popularity


The fifth annual Autism Surf Camp in La Jolla showed its largest enrollment yet. In previous years, the camp, which offers one-on-one surf lessons to children diagnosed with autism, was held for one week at La Jolla Shores but offered four additional weeks of classes this summer in South Mission Beach.

Due to its growing popularity, the final week of classes that took place at La Jolla Shores had a record number of 25 students.

The camp is jointly operated by the San Diego chapter of Autism Society of America and the Aqua Pros Swim School.

“Every year, it gets bigger and better,” Shirley Fett, the immediate past president of the chapter, said.

Camp director and operator of the Aqua Pros Swim School, Tammy Anderson-Lee credits the expansion of the camp to a greater awareness of autism.

“Autism is becoming more prevalent,” Anderson-Lee said. “Everyone seems to know at least one person with autism.”

She said the mission of the camp is to give children with autism the opportunity to participate in the same activities that most San Diego youths have.

Anderson-Lee started the camp after she saw a positive response from students with autism in her swim classes.

“I have been teaching kids with autism for 10 years,” Anderson-Lee said. “Some autistic kids are more relaxed if they have a weighted vest on. The pressure relaxes them. The water relaxes them because it surrounds their body.”

The surf camp is largely funded through charitable donations, but parents do have to pay $100 for their children to participate in the week of classes.

The camp’s blend of a business and a nonprofit organization attracted the attention of Rep. Susan Davis, who came to visit the camp Aug. 29.

“It was a good opportunity for her to come out and see the fruits of our labor,” Fett said.

In addition to surfing, the camp offers arts and crafts lessons and games for the participants.

Most of the staff at the Autism Surf Camp in La Jolla come from the Aqua Pros swim program. Anderson-Lee closes the Aqua Pros pool down for the duration of the surf camp so all swim teachers can get involved.

Each surf instructor is paired with one student throughout the week of classes. The high-functioning students are paired with swim teachers from Aqua Pros Aquatic Center and the lower-functioning students are paired with behavior specialists from the San Diego Unified School District.

Cathy Ball, a behavior specialist at the camp, said the individual attention helps keep the children with autism relaxed throughout the day’s activities.

“We try to keep them engaged for the whole day,” Ball said.

Participants like Wesley Metcalf, a 9-year-old La Jolla resident, return to the camp year after year.

“I play frisbee, I get to go body boarding, and surfing,” Metcalf said. “My favorite part is surfing.”

The salary for surf instructors is lower than their usual pay, but that didn’t seem to bother Metacalf’s teacher, Emily Zimmerman, who is a returning staff member at the La Jolla camp.

“It is very rewarding,” Zimmerman said. “I get to play at the beach all day with a buddy.”