Nonprofit Waves of Strength Aspires to ‘Pass on the Stoke of Surfing’ to Kids with Special Needs

‘There Were a Lot of Smiles and High Fives’ at Surf Camp in Brant Beach
Aug 28, 2019
Photo by: Adam Tormollan

Quinn Holmes, 10, encapsulated nonprofit Waves of Strength’s first-ever surf camp, last Saturday, with this exclamation: “It was really cool!” The many beaming participants, parents and volunteers on the 68th Street beach in Brant Beach were in agreement. There’s just nothing like riding a wave.

“I saw (the event advertised) on Facebook and I immediately emailed them,” said Quinn’s mother, Keara Carr. The family resides full time in New York, but spends summers in Ship Bottom. Quinn, who has spina bifida, is confident in the water, and was eager to surf.

As her mother noted, “Quinn loves the ocean, and the ocean loves her back.”

Waves of Strength believes in the healing power of the sea – this reciprocal ocean love – and the concept of “surf therapy.” Wave riding can positively affect “cognitive and physical development, self-esteem and personal growth” in addition to offering stress relief and “socio-emotional wellness properties,” states the website for the 501(c)(3)

Founder Robert Simek has been surfing his entire life, and was “looking for a way to give back, and to pass on the stoke of surfing.” And so on Saturday, children with special needs, disability, limited mobility, illness or underprivileged circumstances took to the beach with Waves of Strength, and were matched with volunteer surf instructors – all of whom had more than 10 years of experience in the water – to shred the surf.

“We understand the special care, and oftentimes equipment, necessary to provide a safe and positive surf experience for those facing a variety of challenges,” the website explains. “Our organization is here for the children and families who do not have the option to experience surfing through a traditional surf school that may not be equipped to accommodate their individual circumstance.

“We believe that regardless of the situation a child may be in, salt water has the power to heal. The sensational wonder of riding a wave and spending a day at the beach, soaking in the sun, has the potential to make the troubles in one’s life seem a little bit easier to tackle.”

“They understand our kids,” said Brandy Hillegass of Barnegat, who attended the event with her son Aidan, 11, and daughter Savannah, 8. Aidan, who has Down syndrome, “loves the water,” said his mother.

“Everyone here was fabulous,” she added. “It’s hard find things to do with the kids locally. We will be here every year. We can’t wait until next year!”

Dan Pickel, 18, also traveled from Barnegat with his family to try surfing for the first time. “I liked it, all of it,” he said.

“This was something new for him, and he really loved it,” his mother, Barbara, noted. “These guys are fantastic.”

Medford Lakes resident Carson Warren, 13, drove to LBI with his parents, Steve and Melissa. He got some good waves, he said, and found it easy because of the help from his instructors Sam and Rusty, who taught him how to lie on the board, then kneel, then stand. Carson will definitely surf again.

Rowan Guariglia, 4, from Manahawkin, was at the event with his parents, Lara and Anthony. “He’s been surfing since he was 16 months old,” said Lara. She mentioned Surfers for Healing, which is holding a similar surf camp – the Autism Beach Bash – in Belmar on Sept. 8.

Gia and Dante Manzo, 8, also of Manhawkin, were surfing for the first time on Saturday. It took Gia a little while to warm up to the idea of surfing, but when she did, she was all in.

Meanwhile, David Pitera, 11, came all the way from Toms River after a teacher at his school – the Neptune School for the Deaf – saw a post about the event, and thought he would love it. He did.

“The kids were totally fearless,” said volunteer instructor Logan McKenzie. “Everyone on the beach was so stoked! It was truly amazing.”

Jeff Santoloci, who grew up with Simek and has traveled the world surfing with him, agreed. “The kids seemed really comfortable in the water. There were a lot of smiles and high fives.

“LBI needed something like this,” he added.

In addition to volunteering on Saturday, Santoloci, who owns LBI Surfing, loaned boards and other items for the event.

Local businesses helped out monetarily, including the Terrace Tavern, Bay Magazine and Thomas J. Keller Building Contractor of Surf City, all of which donated more than $500. “We have a lot of startup costs, like buying rash guards, life vests and insurance for the event,” said Lisa Simek, Rob Simek’s wife, so the financial support was key.

The couple were also incredibly grateful to the volunteers “who worked tirelessly against the currents and the wind for hours, getting crushed by waves,” on a decidedly non-mellow day of surf. “The event would be nothing without them and their efforts and invaluable time,” said Lisa. “They are the rock stars, and they truly give surfers and the LBI surf culture a wonderful reputation – they are all heart!”

Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol Capt. Randy Townsend and some of his crew joined in as volunteer instructors. “That support meant a lot to us, that his team of elite watermen and waterwomen who win all these championships took the time out of their busy lifeguarding and training schedules to volunteer at our event,” Lisa remarked.

In addition, the Simeks acknowledged MariStella’s Luncheonette, in Ship Bottom, which donated trays of breakfast burritos and sandwiches as well as hot coffee; Sweet Melissa of the Goodness Café in Beach Haven, who provided handmade cookies; and Joey’s Pizza, which gave the organization a discount on the pizza and delivered it to the beach.

Other sponsors included: BCG Granite, Equity Prime Mortgage, Fantasy Island Amusement Park, Fortune Insulation,, Frazer Plumbing, Greg Thomas Construction, The Local Market & Kitchen, the Seddon Family, Stafford PBA, Surf Buggy Bike Shop, Surf Unlimited and The Tide Table Group.

To learn more about Waves of Strength, visit

— Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

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