.- On Sundays, Felipe Pereira is full of enthusiasm. That’s because on Sundays, the 21-year-old goes to Paradise Beach to enjoy the sea along with his friends and to learn how to surf.
For children and young adults with mental disabilities, this is more than a sport. It is the Waves of Hope free surfing school, based in northern Chile’s Antofagasta region.
The school is directed by Chilean surfing enthusiasts Claudio Morales, Catalina Daniels and Pablo Marín. They launched the program five years ago.
After knocking on a lot of doors, running pilot projects, consulting with specialists, and coming up with financing, they began their first class with six surfboards and six wetsuits.
Each Sunday from December to February, the three directors and other volunteers welcome up to 15 children with Down syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and autism, giving them completely personalized classes adapted to each person’s condition.
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Pereira is a very sociable young man who does folk dancing, goes swimming, and works in his school’s bake shop. He told CNA that what he likes most about the surfing classes is “getting on top of the surf board and catching the waves.”
“I like the sea. I really like to go,” he said. Pereira also liked his instructors, saying, “I like how nice they are to us, I love what they do.”
Instructor Catalina Daniels told CNA that her students “challenge you to change. You can’t go on being the same.”
“They are a tremendous example of how love is the driving force of the best things, the best times, the best efforts. Affectionate warmth is the best investment and with them it’s incredible,” she said.
Daniels also discussed the impact of faith, saying “the person who knows Christ, Jesus, who by his mercy came into your life, can’t be the same. You have to be better, more loving, more understanding, more tolerant, because they are.”
Surfing requires strength, balance, agility, and a lot of technique. But what is most important, the Waves of Hope founders recognize, is the relationship between the instructor and the student. This breaks down the barriers of discrimination to make way for integration.
Many Chileans have never spoken or shaken hands with a person with Down syndrome.
“So very motivated volunteers come, but the first day they don’t know what to say, they don’t know how to act, they try to help, but even they freeze up,” Daniels told CNA.
But the students laugh and tell jokes, and eventually, relationships are formed.
“They have an incredible time. They float, row, do group dynamics, take up the surfboard. They have demonstrated that they can do a lot, they have overcome many difficulties related to their condition,” Daniels said.
She explained that the problem is rooted in discrimination and the lack of proper integration.
“They were born struggling with frustration, they were born already disadvantaged,” she said of the students. “It was really hard getting support from the businesses. Why don’t we see girls with Down syndrome promoting products in advertising? Because the beauty of our students is an atypical beauty and no one wants it on their front page.”
“Chile is a country that creates handicaps,” she reflected, adding that trends to de-value family, school and the Church also cause problems for the disabled.
Daniels recommended that people draw closer to God: “to give love you have to be with the Creator of love…When you have love, you have to give it, you have to give it shape, make it real.”
Claudio Morales, another director, added that the volunteers are “the big winners” of Waves of Hope.
“Children with Down syndrome capture your heart in an incredible way,” he said. “I believe that all the volunteers have a changed way of looking at life.”