A woman in a yellow shirt rides a surf boardRegis College students Heather Vaughn ’21, and Mallytza Ibarra ’22, are hitting the waves up and down the New England coast this summer. But they aren’t going just the two of them.

The therapeutic recreation students are completing their practicum this summer with AmpSurf New England, an adaptive surf therapy non-profit organization. Each weekend, they work with individuals – from children to older adults – with life-long disabilities, introduce them to surfing, and enjoy some time by the ocean.

“I’m excited to work with so many different populations,” said Vaughn. “We have worked with individuals who have autism, PTSD, amputations, and muscular dystrophy. And being able to get outside and be in the water is great.”

Founded in 2003, AmpSurf provides learn-to-surf therapy clinics to disabled veterans, first responders, adults, and children. In addition to its New England chapter, AmpSurf has chapters in California, New York, and the Pacific Northwest.

A group in wetsuits gathered around a surf boardWhen Vaughn and Ibarra showed up for their first clinic, they expected to help check people in or hand out snacks. But instead they were literally thrown into the deep end. “The AmpSurf folks told us to put on our wetsuits and they put us right to work,” Vaughn said.

That work could be helping someone in a wheelchair get into the surfing-specific wheelchair, assisting a visually impaired person to the water, or doing tandem surfing with a participant. Before even getting in the water, Vaughn and Ibarra said they talk to participants about their goals for the day, which can range from wanting to surf by themselves to just spending a day at the beach.

“It is incredible they end up surfing on their own pretty quickly,” said Ibarra. “And that says a lot about the organization and the instructors. There is an overwhelming sense of community and we are completely comfortable with each other.”

One way Vaughn and Ibarra say they get comfortable quickly with the participants is when it is time to put on wetsuits. It is a laborious process that forces participants and instructors to get close to one another as they help get the suit on.

“Getting the wetsuits on is terrible and we all kind of share in the terribleness of the experience,” Vaughn said with a laugh.

So far, Vaughn and Ibarra have worked at beaches in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Ibarra said what is great about AmpSurf is you do not need to have any experience in surfing to volunteer.

“Adaptive surfing speaks a lot to what recreational therapy is,” Ibarra said. “A lot of people are hesitant to see recreational therapy as therapy. Adaptive surfing has so many therapeutic outcomes and these people, yes they are having fun, but they are certainly feeling those physical and mental aspects as well.”