Without going into potentially embarrassing detail about my mid-20s, I will at least share that I have extreme gratitude for the healing power of surfing. The ocean calms and humbles, and the act of riding a board down the face of a perfectly curling wave can have the effect of a weekend at a Buddhist retreat.

Channeling this healing power is a big part of a surf camp founded in 2014 and now being celebrated in a first-time, all-comers, free-entry surf contest for kids on Saturday, Sept 28, at Otter Rock State Park.

“I grew up next to the ocean and know how important it was to me when I learned to surf,” said Toby Winn, executive director of development at Neighbor for Kids, an after-school program that uses activities like the surf camp to provide positive experiences for young people, including those with physical limitations, emotional challenges or simply no access to such opportunities.

“It’s a healthy physical activity that can help create a connection with and respect for the environment and there’s definitely a therapeutic effect. We get kids that are going through hard times for any number of reasons and we’ve witnessed the changes the surf camp can bring. Surfing builds self-confidence and self-esteem and can make them braver.”

NFK started in 1999 and is now the longest operating after-school program in Lincoln County. A source of pride for Winn, who began working there in 2006, is the program’s inclusive policy.

“We accept children other places won’t,” he said. “We have a wonderful trained staff with the love and patience to really work with individualized needs. Some of our kids come to us through the foster care system, from families that are low-income or currently homeless, even through the juvenile justice system.”

The camp takes budding surfers in the water for 11 weeks during the summer.

“We have grown so much that we now get 40 to 50 kids,” Winn said. “We welcome preteens and teens, the ones who are old enough that it’s safe for them to go into the water.”

Some of the participants in the program, where the number of people who volunteer allows a one-to-one relationship of instructors to students, are on the autism spectrum and were afraid of the ocean and in particular getting in a wetsuit.

“They wouldn't even dip a toe in the water at first,” Winn said. “Over the years they’ve worked up to it are now like any other kid, just out there surfing. It’s pretty great.”

The new event, the Keiki Kowabunga Challenge, builds on the success of the surf camp.

“We want to give the kids a chance to be in a more structured event,” Winn said. “rather than just out there playing.”

The free competition can accommodate up to 75 surfers and was originally limited to ages seven to 17, but now has a parent-and-child division.

“That’s our style; if there is a need we try to fill it,” Winn said. “We had someone sign up that has a five year old.”

The “competition,” which Winn stresses won’t be like the usual cutthroat environment of most surf contests, will be judged by local surfers.

“We’ve instructed them to look for things like enthusiasm or best stunt not just dominating on a wave,” Winn said. “It’s more about character building and positive reinforcement.”

All participants get a goody bag, t-shirts, snacks and prizes thanks to contributions from sponsors like Boardriders, Surfrider, Ossie’s Surf Shop and Cafe Ce’st La Vie.

This celebration of surf is also a celebration of the life of long time NFK board member Byron Lewis.

“We don’t want to emphasize the memorial aspect to the kids that much because we don’t want to bum them out,” Winn said.

“Byron was a surfer his whole life and Otter Rock was his spot. He volunteered with us in many capacities but one of his favorite things was being in the water with the kids. He really believed in the power of these activities. This event is in loving memory of him, not in mourning.”

One of the kids that will be surfing in the competition is one of the reasons that Winn still smiles easily after the challenge of heading a non-profit for well over a decade.

“Marcos was hesitant because he couldn't swim and that was his big fear. He was also struggling in other ways but he has a great supportive mother and we all really care about him. We got him to the point where he would go into the water in a wetsuit and a safety vest, so he learned to surf before he learned to swim. Now he goes out by himself, doesn’t want any help and he’s learning to swim. He’s not only gained confidence in the water, he’s made leaps and bounds in other areas of his life too.”

The free surf contest will run from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday, Sept. 28. Register online at www.neighborsforkids.org. For more information, call 541-765-8990.

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