By Guest Contributor David McKibbin
As COVID-19 restrictions relax, more families are spending time hitting the beach to cool off.
At Deerfield Beach, children with special needs ride high on surfboards, with caring adults at their side to keep them standing tall above the waves. These youngsters are hanging ten thanks to Shaka Soul Surfers.
Established in 2020, Shaka Soul Surfers is a nonprofit surfing school dedicated to providing a calm and relaxed social outlet for children of all abilities. These kids have conditions ranging from physical disabilities to autism spectrum disorders.
“We started this surf school because we saw a lack of programs that took kids that were lower functioning or that have specific disabilities and behaviors,” says Estefania Holt of Coral Springs, who founded Shaka Soul Surfers with coworkers Kiera Martin and Daniela Montealegre.
Holt, Martin, and Montealegre have worked in the special needs community collectively for 10 years, having met working as special education teachers for Super School in Plantation.
At Super School, students spend hours a day in behavioral, occupational, physical, and speech therapies.
As a teacher, Holt wanted to find an extracurricular activity where her kids could be kids.
“If we take a look at typical students, they go to school, and they participate in an extracurricular activity. We are just providing safe, fun, and affordable extracurricular activities for everybody, regardless of ability.”
Katy Wood’s nonverbal son has surfed with Shaka Soul Surfers since the school’s founding. She sings Shaka’s praises for creating a welcoming and supporting environment.
“The instructors are very mindful of safety and made sure my son was comfortable and adapted to his needs.”
Holt is no stranger to surfing. She has volunteered for four years with Surfers for Autism and Special Olympics surfing. Her father, Carl Jose Nichols, has been a semi-professional soul surfer since he was 11-years-old in Baymon, Puerto Rico—riding the waves at beaches from Machua to La Ocho. He has also surfed on beaches throughout Florida and Hawaii and has even been featured in Surfboard Magazine PR. Nichols also lends his surfing expertise as an instructor to his daughter.
This family affair does not just include a father-daughter team. Her husband, Mitchell, has played an active role in the organization’s day-to-day operations.
Her stepfather, Bob Thompson, shoots professional photographs at every lesson for parents to keep as souvenirs.
“The greatest challenge and the greatest joy about volunteering for Shaka Soul Surfers is capturing that moment when a child is truly into themselves,” said Thompson. “That smile, that reaction…that tells you that they are having fun and learning at the same time.”
Shaka Soul Surfers depends heavily on volunteer mermaids and mermen who provide meaningful social interactions for the kids.
Most of these volunteers are students at area high schools fulfilling their community service requirements. Ishani Marshall, who attends Coral Springs Charter School, Stella Mancini, who attends St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and Josefine Majdoch, who attends Coral Springs High School, have devoted their time to Shaka Soul Surfers for the past two years as volunteer coordinators. Mancini and Marshall both have siblings with disabilities.
“My younger brother’s disability has opened my heart and eyes to the struggles these kids have with the lack of programs and even care,” says Mancini, whose brother has a rare genetic disorder known as Phelan-McDermid syndrome.
“Being a part of Shaka has been such a rewarding experience, and I am so grateful to the Shaka team for allowing me to be so involved. It is amazing to see how happy these kids get when they get on a board.”
Even during the pandemic, Shaka Soul Surfers is continuing to grow. This past year, enrollment has increased to 30 students overall. The school has just completed its second week of surfing lessons for 2021, with 17 kids participating in private and group lessons.
Shaka Soul Surfers just received funding to purchase handcrafted surfboards built by the DEAKI Company, and Holt hopes to purchase a wheelchair-accessible surfboard for children with physical disabilities soon.
Lessons take place next to the Deerfield International Beach Pier, located 200 NE 21st Avenue in Deerfield Beach. For more information about enrollment, volunteering, or making a tax-deductible donation, please visit shakasoulsurfers.org or call 954-913-6988.
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