Ready, set, surf: Kids catch waves with local non-profit

Aug 18, 2020

For the past two years — and despite a developmental delay that affects his coordination — six-year-old Landon Santos has been learning a new pastime: surfing.

The Dartmouth resident started taking lessons with Fall River non-profit Gnome Surf in 2019, and according to mom Heather Reis, he loves it.

“His first lesson, he said ‘That was awesome, and terrifying, all at the same time!’” she laughed.

“He’s afraid to hurt himself, and I kind of have to force him out of his comfort zone,” she added. “But then once he’s out there...he loves it.”

Santos is heading into first grade at Quinn School next month — Covid notwithstanding — where he receives speech, physical, and occupational therapy due to delays in his cognitive and physical development.

“His number one problem is he can’t find his inner balance,” said Reis. “He doesn't stand up straight, he doesn’t sit up straight. So what better way to find your balance than on a surfboard?”

Gnome Surf is the brainchild of Fall River resident Christopher Antao, who works by day as a banker and spends every evening in the water teaching kids to surf.

“I really have no life,” he laughed. “I’ve dedicated my life to these kids, and I’m okay with that.”

A longtime surfer, Antao came up with the idea for an inclusive surf therapy program a few years ago, and it has grown bigger and bigger every year since.

After officially gaining non-profit status at the end of 2018, Gnome’s surf programs “exploded at the seams,” with more than 750 families participating this summer, according to Antao. 

“It’s absolutely insane what’s going on,” he said. “We’re bringing in people from all over New England, and New York...We’re creating a mini surf culture here in southeastern Massachusetts.”

The program aims to create a place of acceptance for kids of all abilities by providing surf and art therapy as well as eco therapy and yoga lessons. 

Many of the students are neurodivergent, people with conditions like autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, depression and anxiety.

“We had our first session at the beach, and I was hooked,” said Dartmouth resident and longtime Gnome volunteer Kristen Pacheco. “It’s really fun when you can see kids without any hesitation get out in the water and try something new...that kind of energy is really catching.”

“Then you have a lot of kids that are just terrified,” she noted. “The joy there is just getting those kids to trust you enough to go out to their ankle, then by the end the kids are brave enough to go out there in the water just like everyone else.”

Pacheco said she loved watching kids “do something they literally never thought they’d do in a million years.”

“Even with my own daughter, the confidence level that comes the next four or five days, it’s incredible,” she noted. 

Her daughter Lacey started surf lessons with Gnome when she was five. “She’s like ‘I’m a surfer, and I’m awesome,’” Pacheco laughed. “So I believe it when parents say that it makes a difference.”

“Some of these kids are really little, and it’s a really big deal to learn. It can be scary,” she added. “It’s not super common for this area...So it’s a really cool thing to be doing.”

Antao said that his favorite part of running the program is “The smiles that we put on our kids faces.”

“Helping them break out of that shell and feel confident in themselves — they have a whole different persona,” he added. “I’m super grateful to be involved, and to my volunteers.”

As for her son Landon, Reis said, “I have to push him to get there, but once he’s there he’s all about it...He definitely feels a sense of independence.”

And most importantly, she added, “My son has never felt out of place [there.] No one looks at you any differently.”