AWOW (A WALK ON WATER): ESME’s Featured Nonprofit
Children with special needs experience the “stoke” of guided surf instruction
A WALK ON WATER, aka AWOW, provides water therapy through guided surf instruction to children with specials needs. Surfing is used as a tool to gain self-confidence skills and promote the therapeutic benefits of the sport’s positive effects and our oceans’ healing powers. Children experience the true “stoke” of surfing and a sense of accomplishment as family and friends cheer them on from the beach. Brothers and sisters also participate, helping to solidify an often-strained bond between siblings. AWOW’s surf events focus on both the athletes and their families, who are treated to a well-deserved day of relaxation, healthy food, and lifestyle guidance.
Pat Notaro III is the founder of AWOW. Notaro was introduced to Surfers Healing, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of those who are living with autism by exposing them to surfing, when Variety—the Children’s Charity decided to have the first “Surfers Healing Autism Pat Notaro Day” in Malibu, California. In the organization’s early stages, Notaro donated his time as a surf instructor, all the while doing what came naturally—documenting the events. Notaro wanted to know more about autism, so he met with families to better understand this increasingly diagnosed condition. When a close family member was diagnosed as autistic, this strengthened Notaro’s resolve to better understand autism and educate himself on a variety of special needs.
AWOW was inspired by the desire to evolve the care and treatment options provided to families of children with special needs. Notaro poured his heart into every event, eventually realizing the need to create his own vision of what a nonprofit should look like. Common bonds, love for the ocean, surfing, and a desire to help those in need brought the AWOW family together. The opportunity arose to create a new surf-event experience based out of Hollister Ranch, California, one that was open to entire families and children of all disabilities—and so AWOW was born. The name “A WALK ON WATER” is derived from a movie script Notaro’s grandfather was going to produce before he passed away in 1970.
Diane Schallert, Solo Mom and family liaison for AWOW, discusses her role and connection to the organization:
I am a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA) and the family liaison for A WALK ON WATER. It’s my pleasure to tell you how I got involved with such an awe-inspiring organization I like to call my family.
I have been a nurse for almost 30 years. I have worked with women and children my entire career, helping bring new life into this magical place—and I love what I do.
I was introduced to AWOW in 2013 by my dear childhood friend. He had been volunteering for some time as a surf instructor and thought I would enjoy giving back to this organization. Little did I know how right on he would be!
I had just come out of a pretty long and painful divorce after being married for 26 years (34 years altogether). It was all I knew, and being a mother was what I loved most. However, I wasn’t prepared for the deep sense of loss and identity crisis, let alone the challenge of being a single mother to my three children. My two boys were 18 and 20 and on their own but still needing my guidance from time to time. My daughter was 13 and divided her time between her father and me. Although their father was in their lives, I was completely on my own for the first time ever in my life. Needless to say, I was not prepared. I had to figure out how to do life a new way. My daughter would travel from LA to Washington State many times throughout the year. This would be our new normal. My heart had never felt so much pain. I was feeling completely lost and helpless. The fear and anxiety about the future was paralyzing at times.
Being a single mother has many challenges. The most challenging for me was trying to get that “connectedness” again, that ease and oneness, that feeling of belonging and acceptance that we get through our loving relationships and our families—when we feel connected, accepted, wanted, and loved.
It is often said, “You get what you give.” I vividly recall the last event of the season at [Marine Corps Base] Camp Pendleton [in San Clemente, California]. I was to help put wet suits on the kids and help them to the water and out again. This task alone was amazing to witness. The transformation that happens to these kids is incredible. They often protest all the way to the water until, like magic, it soothes their little nervous systems and calms their souls. Some of these children speak for the very first time on that board. It’s the most beautiful image you’ll ever see. It changed me. It was no longer about me at all. It was so much bigger. A light ignited deep in my soul, and the hum of that day is forever in my heart.
Today, I humbly serve AWOW by being their family liaison. I also have a huge love for photography and the arts. So, whenever I can grab my camera at the events, I take that opportunity to shoot something beautiful.
I was recently asked to serve on the advisory board and to help with empowering women through surfing. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to the families and listen to what they need. To hear them, to help ease their anxieties, to help facilitate whatever it is they may need to get them to the events. Some of these families are struggling financially and cannot even afford gas money. Many of these mothers are not working or working very little so [they can] stay home with their child(ren) with special needs. Many of these single mothers have been left after the birth of their child with special needs by the fathers, leaving them alone, abandoned, and broke. They carry the load all by themselves, never getting a break. I hear many stories like these, but I also hear how grateful they are as well. They are grateful for what AWOW has given their families. A day at the beach is golden to these families. These same mothers will come to the events in the hope of a great experience and to get that “stoke” we all speak about and then end up cheering on all the others as well. They make lifelong friends with the other mothers, who, like them, are struggling with similar challenges and they form lifelong bonds.
Although I do not have a child who has special needs, I have a heart that loves to care for them and their families. Like many of these other mothers, I have found my place. My life has changed in so many beautiful ways. I’m so grateful. It’s now my mission to help families get the experience of “A WALK ON WATER,” where the vibe is contagious and love rules the day.
Q: When and why did you get involved with AWOW?
A: I got involved with AWOW in 2013 at the surf therapy event at Camp Pendleton. I assisted Denise Drury, another single mom who I’ve since bonded with, with putting wet suits and safety vests on the children. I was introduced to AWOW through Dale Rhodes (an AWOW surf instructor), who is a dear childhood friend.
At the time, I was going through a divorce and needed something to clear my mind. AWOW presented an opportunity to give back and do something for someone else, to get outside my own mind. In my occupation as a nurse, working with children at Children’s Hospital LA, I am naturally drawn to kids, and AWOW provided a unique opportunity to connect with them in a way I hadn’t before.
Q: What are the key services your organization provides? What kinds of difficulties do your clients face?
A: AWOW provides surf therapy to families of individuals with special needs. For me, specifically, I’m able to connect with the mothers in a way that maybe some of the other AWOW board members (who are mostly male) cannot.
I am responsible for talking to all the families on the phone and by email leading up to the events, and many times I find myself connecting with the mothers of these children with special needs. They can be extremely apprehensive about AWOW, as surf therapy is not something that is very commonplace, especially to many of these families who do not live near the ocean.
One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to put the parents at ease about attending a surf-therapy event and allowing their children to go surf, basically trusting the surf instructors with their child’s life. As a single mom myself, and having witnessed countless surf-therapy days, I can uniquely vouch for the benefits that AWOW and surf therapy provide the children—and the entire family!
Q: How many Solo Moms or Solo-Mom families are you able to help? Is there any family or mom in particular who stands out for you? Can you share their story?
A: Generally, around 25% of our families who attend the AWOW surf-therapy events are [headed by] single moms. Families with children with special needs seem to, for some reason, have an even higher rate of fathers leaving and not being able to handle the support that is necessary when you have a child (or multiple children) with special needs.
There is one family who particularly stands out in my mind. We connected at one of the events, and [the mom] opened up to me about how difficult it is to raise a child with special needs on her own, with no support, working full time (as a counselor for other moms). She impressed on me how apprehensive she was about allowing her son with autism to even go in the water, let alone surf. She couldn’t believe that by the end of the day, her son was a surfer! And she felt like she and the entire family had bonded with the AWOW staff, like she had become part of the AWOW family.
That is something that is so key to me about AWOW: [the organization] refers to the event attendees as “AWOW family.” The whole idea of supporting each other as one big family is so vital to the DNA of the organization. A huge emphasis is placed on ensuring that every person who attends a surf-therapy event feels as if they belong, like they have a new secondary support system.
Q: Is there a memorable event or situation that demonstrates the goals of your organization?
A: The other story that was shared with me by the mother I mentioned is a great representation of what AWOW stands for, which is: we are all one and the same.
She said the thing that made her well up was the fact that her son “is never invited anywhere or to anything” and “he doesn’t have any friends.” She felt so grateful that her son was able to meet other athletes at the event and bond over a common love for surfing and the “stoke” it provides.
They feel a sense of family. Rarely do they even get a chance to get out, let alone feel so included in something so powerful and valuable to their family.
Q: What are some of the challenges your organization faces in terms of funding and support?
A: AWOW surf-therapy events are free to attend for each and every family in need. In addition to the surf therapy provided in the water by our surf instructors, we treat the families to a completely immersive experience, allowing them to decompress and reconnect together over a shared life-changing experience.
The cost to provide these valuable events runs between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on location and size. We have a goal to continue to add more events year after year, to be able to serve as many families in need as possible. Unfortunately, this means it sometimes feels as if we are always in fundraising mode 24/7, 365 [days a year].
The majority of our funding comes from selling branded merchandise with the AWOW logo, which has proven to be quite popular. The longer-term solution would be to partner with like-minded organizations that could endow us with grant money that would allow us to continue to serve our athletes and their families, and grow to include even more families in need.
Q: How have you been impacted by this work? Has it changed you in any way?
A: The biggest impact AWOW has had on me is that it has helped me better understand what it means to have and raise a child with special needs. I have seen in person how important it is to these families that they have a support system around them. As a single mom of “normal” children, it is humbling to understand how much more difficult it can even be for single moms of children with special needs. It forced me to be more grateful for what I have and what the future holds. It’s something that has allowed me to feel selfless and to give my everything to a cause that has become so important to me. I feel like I’ve found a new family, a group of individuals whom I rely on for support and love, and to whom I can return [that love and support] in kind.
This whole AWOW experience has humbled me, helped me to be a better person, to become more comfortable in my own skin, to find trust in like-minded souls, to better appreciate what I have, to allow myself to open up and be vulnerable again. I’ve always been a nurse and worked with women and children, but never could I have imagined how these families and single mothers, who have it so much more difficult than I ever did, would change me and make me so much more appreciative for what I have.
I could never even put a price or a paycheck on what I do; I feel like I’ve been blessed with the greatest job I could ever ask for.
Q: What are you most proud of in terms of your work and participation with AWOW?
A: What I’m most proud of is how hard we’ve worked to bring the AWOW surf-therapy experience to as many families as we have. I think it is amazing that we’ve brought surf therapy to almost 1,000 families since we started four years ago. At the same time, I’m a bit frustrated—frustrated that we can’t scale this quicker. I know how many families are out there right this minute, families who need our help and who may not even know that AWOW or surf therapy exists. Still, I’m amazed at what we’ve accomplished, the friendships I’ve made, and the impact it has all had on my life.
I’m proud that I’m a single mother who has not only survived but thrived, grown, learned, loved, cried, laughed, and—most of all—shared in this beautiful AWOW experience with so many other moms just like me.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.