By Jill Warren Lucas
Jack Viorel doesn’t sound or act like a chillax surfer dude. Instead, the eloquent California transplant is carving out a philanthropic niche by making it possible for disadvantaged, medically fragile and special needs youth around the world to gain life-changing confidence through surfing.
Through the Wilmington, N.C.-based Indo Jax Surf Charities, he is accepting applications for a series of surf camps to be held at Wrightsville Beach and Half Moon Bay, Calif., from May 28 through September. Other international camps are being planned.
“We work with a lot of youth who have low self-esteem and think their situations prevent them from living a full life,” says Viorel, who recently returned from his fourth annual trip to India, where more than 200 girls living in landlocked orphanages traveled with chaperones to the coast. Most were non-swimmers who had never seen the ocean before.
“They all start out very shy, even afraid, but it doesn’t take long for them to enjoy themselves,” Viorel says. “No one knew what to expect the first year, but now even the nuns can’t wait for us to arrive. They see what it does help the girls learn important life skills.”
Viorel doesn’t mean the ability to surf. He’s talking about building trust – not only in the cadre of trained experts who assist campers in the water, but in the ability of these youth to conquer fears and achieve greater levels of independence. “It’s tough to coordinate, because we need so many instructors and volunteers, but it’s worth every bit of effort,” says the retired school teacher. “Once they realize they can float with the life vests, they begin to relax and have fun. And once you get them on a surf board,there’s no stopping them.”
Whether the surfers are disadvantaged orphans, youth who are blind, deaf, mobility impaired or mentally challenged, Viorel says all participants gain far more than an introductory lesson in how to catch a wave.
“The goal of our program is not surfing. That’s just the vehicle,” says Viorel, who operates a commercial surf school to help fund his charity’s international activities. “There are so many life lessons that come with learning to surf and being in the ocean. It can really change how a person views their place in the world.”
Viorel recalls an Indian child who joined the program four years ago; she had an eye gouged out years earlier to make her a “better begger.” After experiencing surf camp, the 11-year-old wrote a school essay about how the adventure made her want to help others. “She felt it taught her to be brave and courageous,” Viorel says. “She knows now that she doesn’t have to subject to her situation.”
Viorel, who often travels with his 10-year-old daughter Gabby, hopes that all campers experience a similar epiphany. He says it is equally valuable for parents and caregivers, whose caution may inadvertently reinforce the belief that their children “should not attempt anything challenging or exciting.”
Viorel says that parents and caregivers often pace the beach nervously at the beginning of a session but relax when they see their children relating with other campers and enjoying their experience.
“Imagine how they feel when they realize their child is not so different from other kids,” he says. “For the parent and the child, it throws open a whole world of possibilities.”
The idea for the surf charity started nearly 20 years ago, when Viorel was an elementary school teacher in California. He often was assigned “unruly” students that he today suspects would be described as having autism or severe ADHD.
“I always thought to myself, if I could get these kids out in the water and show them how capable they are, I could change things for them,” says the lifelong surfer. “I didn’t get a chance to do it until I moved here five years ago, but it worked. It was a success on the first try.”
The project became so successful, in fact, that Viorel and his wife created a 501(c)(3) to accept donations and manage the project’s rapid growth. Most camps cost between $3,000 and $4,000 to produce, depending on location, the number of participants and their degree of disability. Parents and organizations are required to pay part of the cost, with the balance covered by his charity.
“We’ve always operated in a deficit,” says Viorel, whose outreach is the subject of Bound by Sea, a documentary scheduled for summer release. “I charge less than half of what I can get at my commercial school, but I need many more professional instructors and volunteers to ensure that it is safe and successful. Also, I have to have a variety of boards to accommodate the different needs of participants.”
While youth campers live with a range of disabilities, Viorel says they all benefit from the attention of caring adults and the experience of rising to a new challenge.
“A lot of these kids have not explored vulnerability, or building a friendship with someone else,” he says, adding that it’s not unusual for pent-up emotions to rush forth like waves crashing on the shore. “Surfing seems so out of the realm of possibility for them. When they do it and succeed, they feel like they can do anything.”