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Spectrum Sailing brings inclusivity to the Newport Harbor

Orange County Register - 2/22/2024

The camp is not just about learning where the hull is on the sailboat or how to steer the vessel as it glides on the water – it’s about gaining confidence to navigate life.

Twenty neuro-diverse children were treated to a three-day Spectrum Sailing camp in Newport Beach this week, an opportunity for the youngsters to try something new with others on the autism spectrum.

“We want to make sure everyone has a chance to get on the water. You live in a place like this, or we go to tons of cities that are on the water, and there’s hundreds of hundreds of kids that have never been on a boat, or have never been to the beach or gone surfing,” the nonprofit Spectrum Sailing’s founder Scott Herman said as three 20-foot boats got ready to set sail in the Newport Harbor on Thursday, Feb. 22.  “It’s great to give the kids a chance to do something like this.”

Spectrum Sailing is a national autism sailing program, with 10 camps held around the country throughout the year. The program’s partnership this week with the Orange Coast College School for Sailing and Seamanship marked its first stop of the year.

Herman first launched the program about eight years ago, wanting to share his love of sailing with his then 8-year-old son, Daniel. There was one problem – there were no programs available geared toward children on the autism spectrum.

“No one would let him go to camp,” Herman recalled. “So we decided to create our own.”

He took inspiration, he said, from the Orange County-based Surfers Healing, a nonprofit group created by Izzy and Danielle Paskowitz after they found salt water helped calm their autistic son Isaiah.

They, too, faced frustration finding a place for their son to enjoy the outdoors, so the San Juan Capistrano couple created the surfing experience nearly 25 years ago to help children learn to surf, all for free.

Now, they too hold events around the country – including at Folly Beach, in South Carolina, where Daniel took a surf lesson about the same time Herman was feeling frustrated he couldn’t get his son sailing lessons.

“I stood on the beach and watched these guys and girls take them surfing. I was fighting back tears,” Herman said. “It literally is one perfect day.”

He saw what the experience on the water did for his son, he said, the boost in confidence and a newfound love for the ocean.

“My son really thinks he’s a pro surfer,” he said. “That’s the perception they create for these kids.”

By the next fall, drawing from Surfers Healing as a model and inspiration, Herman had set up his own program, Spectrum Sailing, to teach kids with autism how to navigate the waters.

There’s one key element that’s the same: Both are free.

“We try to raise money in the community,” Herman said, noting that everyone from locals to car dealerships to corporate matching programs have helped through the years.

There’s so many moments that show the impact of the program, he said. Like a 15-year-old who couldn’t tie his shoe, but after learning to tie a knot on the boat, had no problem learning the skill. A teenage girl struggled with learning to ride a bike, but when she returned home from the camps she got her’s out of the garage and rode it down the street.

“They believe in themselves,” Herman said. “It’s not about sailing. We use it as a vehicle to build self esteem and so they know there’s a place where they are welcome.”

The kids this week started the day in the classroom, practicing their knot-tying skills, going over the day’s weather and what parts of the boat are called.

Sophia Sanchez, 15, came ready to learn with a huge smile splashed across her face as she got to the classroom.

“I’m excited to learn new techniques on the boat,” she said.

The best part? “Sailing on the boat and being with my friends,” she said.

Out on the water, she threw her hands out to the blue sky as the boat cruised along the sparkling waters.

“Ahoy, matey!” she belted.

Her dad, Juan Sanchez, watched from the parking lot as his daughter cruised by on the boat. The new friends she made was one of the big takeaways for him.

“She was very excited,” he said. “It’s the first time she woke up at 6 a.m., she was happy to come. She’s very social… I’m very proud. There’s so many things she’s achieving.”

Sanchez said as parents they have tried to find as many programs as they can to boost Sophia’s self esteem, like swim team and horse therapy.

“It’s like a dream come true, it’s getting independence,” he said. “We give her all the chances to grow and be a strong individual. If there’s no programs like this, we wouldn’t have many choices as parents of special needs kids. The people who make all of this happen, it’s amazing.”

Alicia Glass, of Laguna Beach, brought daughter, Tinsley, 14, for her second-day session, a chance to get her outdoors and away from online school.

“For children on the spectrum, especially when they are at home, they miss those social interactions that the other kids have,” Glass said.

Knowing Tinsley was with others on the spectrum gave her comfort, Glass said.

There are times being in public with a child who has special needs can be difficult, she said. “It might look like bad behavior to other children.”

But the crew at Spectrum Sailing know better, she said. “They know what’s going on, we don’t have to worry about whether she is going to offend someone, or is someone going to get upset that she did something wrong. It’s a nice relief for me, as a mom, I don’t often get.”

It’s also a nice break from life stress, allowing the single mom a few hours of quiet time to herself, with plans for the morning to simply take a walk.

“This is just a real blessing for us,” Glass said.

Mette Segerblom, sailing program coordinator for OCC, said she hopes the sailing opportunity is something the college can offer on a more regular basis, and said she sees the class as just the start to what they can offer.

“We know that we have kids on the spectrum in all of our classes. We want to learn more about how we can better serve that. His program helps with that,” Segerblom said. “It allows us an opportunity to work with a group that does this all the time and hopefully we can take what we learn into our programs or create a program of our own.”

Having sailing programs build on what he teaches is Herman’s vision as well.

For just the Newport Beach camp, Spectrum Sailing received 139 applications for the 20 spots available, he said.

“It’s like a double-edged sword, we had to turn away 119 kids, but the positive is that programs know there’s a massive demand,” he said. “We can leave that list for them, if they want to use that opportunity for neuro-diverse youth, they can pick up where we left off.”

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