Not everyone is blessed with the same opportunities in life, but the ocean is a great equalizer. Embracing that ethos, Marina del Rey’s Pro SUP Shop hosted SUP for Smiles on Saturday, August 2. The event gave 20 autistic children the opportunity to experience the ocean through Stand Up Paddling (SUP). “It’s all about giving back to the community,” said Pro SUP Shop owner Mike Vaughan, Jr.
This past weekend’s event was the second visit of the summer by the group to the beachside SUP shop jointly operated by the father-son team of Mike Vaughan, Junior and Senior. “There were a lot of smiles out there today,” said Senior as he helped one of the children unclasp the buckles on their life jacket at the end of the session.
SUP for Smiles was inspired by a long time Pro SUP Shop customer, Tricia Ortega, a teacher at Kid-to-Kid, a Culver City-based school specializing in teaching social skills to children with access and functional needs. While this was the first time in the ocean for some of the children, other’s had prior SUP experience and displayed impeccable balance as they eagerly picked up paddles and darted out into placid water of the lagoon at Mother’s Beach.
My wife and I had the pleasure of joining Pro SUP Shop as volunteer instructors on Saturday to assist with the event. As there were more children than volunteer instructors, Tricia divided the kids into two groups. After setting up pop-up-tents to shade the reception area we received a briefing on the varying levels of social interaction skills possessed by the children.
I was introduced to a pair of brothers, Jose and Guillermo, both of whom had prior stand up paddling experience. We swapped stories about where we were from as we walked across the sand to the water’s edge where a collection of boards and paddles awaited. After selecting a matching pair of wide, stable, turquoise SUPs and getting them sized up for paddles we took to the water.
The brothers each stepped onto the boards and began paddling without hesitation. I waded into the water and followed them in the shallows before retreating to shore and grabbed my own board as it was quickly apparent they were both eager and capable of traveling under their own propulsion.
After joining them on the water, we paddled together along a string of yellow buoys demarking the swim area. Positioning ourselves along the outer perimeter, the brother’s took turns leading our armada of three along the swim buoys. With the buoys as our guide, we gently traversed the lagoon and executed a clean turn near the midway point.
All of the children thoroughly enjoyed the experience of SUP. While some were able to master the balance necessary to stand on the boards, others were perfectly happy to sit or kneel on the boards. A few were content to sit back and enjoy the glide while one of the volunteer instructors paddled. And why not, this was their day!