We’re always looking for good people doing good things, particularly within the surfing community itself. Surf charity initiatives have become increasingly popular in recent years, helping surfers across the globe give back in a number of ways. In 2016, we began supporting Ocean Heroes, an Australian surf charity designed to enhance the lives of kids with Autism. We checked in with Ocean Heroes director Luke Hallam to hear their story.
Volte: Luke, when did you begin your work in this area?
Luke: My first experience was as a personal trainer in 2008 when I had a little girl with autism referred to me by her mum. She was homeschooled and wasn’t doing much exercise but when I started training her we got really good results. She had less anxiety, less depression and became more active and happy. Her mum got me some more clients from the autism community through word of mouth and it developed from there.
When did you realise there was a connection between autism and surfing?
I watched a video of Surfers Healing, who are a not-for-profit organisation based out of California who also take kids with autism surfing. I teamed up with Sam Moyle, Tom Johnston, Jason Vivian, my girlfriend Steph Hudson and a few others in a fundraising effort to have Surfers Healing come to Perth. That was in March 2016 and they ended up coming over here for a one day event.
Watching the kids first hand, the difference from when they went into the water to after they came out, just blew me away. I don’t think you could ever record the benefits it creates, but you can definitely witness it when you come down to the events.
How did you come up with the Ocean Heroes concept, and what role do Sam Moyle and Tom Johnston play?
Sam (pictured above), Tom and myself are the directors. We got together after the Surfers Healing event in March and realised there was a big community drive to have more. We figured it was more feasible long-term to run these events ourselves rather than having to constantly fundraise separate one day efforts. We decided to hold a trial event in May and ended up getting 25 kids to come along. We had really good reviews and a lot of support from all of the parents so from there we decided to register as a charity and hold more events.
Steph became beach co-ordinator and we had prominent autism researcher Professor Andrew Whitehouse join our board. He was a bit of a coup for us because he’s the guy who everyone in the world looks to for autism research at the moment and he’s 100% behind us and is blown away by what he sees. We’ve also got Andrew Haak who is a paediatrician helping us out behind the scenes.
That’s the main group involved and it’s been blowing up. Our last event filled up in three hours and we’ve got over 100 people on the wait list for that event as well.
You’ve mentioned some encouraging evidence relating to the effects of getting autistic kids in the water and management of their symptoms, can you fill us in?
So there’s evidence showing the benefits of general exercise, particularly running and resistance training, from a study that Telethon Kids did here in WA. When someone goes and works out, there is a big endorphin release and you feel good afterwards and you have less anxiety and so on.
It’s very similar for kids and adults on the autism spectrum but probably has even more of an impact because of the sensory overloads they have. The first girl I trained, Mia, had huge anxiety issues and really struggled to go into public places. As we worked over time she got more calm and confident and the effects would actually last for days afterwards.
One of the things we’re seeing from surfing in particular is parents giving us anecdotal feedback that their kids have been more relaxed, more attentive at school and just happier overall after their surfing session. So it’s really not just the riding the waves part of surfing we’re encouraged by, it’s the after-effects that linger on for days.
Since the first event, I’ve noticed a huge jump in numbers. How big do you think these events could actually get?
The last event had over 80 kids and we had about 60 volunteers. The kids arrive in groups of ten and that’s so we can keep everything safe and manageable. Each kid generally has two or three volunteers to help them.
Because of the format, the only way to grow in size is to have longer events. We’re pushed for time in Perth with the seabreeze coming in around midday, so generally we can only run the event for about five hours. With enough volunteers, we could run it longer so that is something we do want to pursue. We also want to hold events in rural areas and that would be a great way to grow our profile and our reach.
What’s next and where do you hope to take Ocean Heroes in 2017?
We want to hold monthly events in the warmer seasons and have one in a rural region at some point during April or May. We also have a fundraiser in March coming up and we’re hoping to do an interstate trip next summer. We think every kid with autism in Australia should have the opportunity to try this so if we can keep growing and increasing our reach then we can start moving toward that goal and we’re really motivated to do that.