2016 Autism Surf Camp

Special Needs Youth

Spieth Foundation Supports Surf Camps

How does a devoted elementary school teacher on the West Coast end up running surf camps for kids with special needs on the East Coast? There were times when the answer eluded even Jack Viorel, the man who changed his life to make this happen. Viorel has concluded that it was a higher calling.

“I definitely have come to believe, wholeheartedly, that helping others is why we’re here,” he says.

Viorel operates the Indo Jax Surf School in Wilmington, N.C., and its offshoot, Indo Jax Surf Charities, the latter being the latest beneficiary of the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation. Formed in 2014, the Spieth Foundation was created with three major causes in mind: special-needs youth, military families and junior golf.

A California native and passionate surfer, Viorel for years taught school in San Mateo, Calif., and used surfing to help students develop self-esteem. At the end of the school year, he would invite his students to the beach and introduce them to surfing.

2016 Autism Surf Camp 2
2016 Autism Surf Camp

“There was a little girl named Alex, who had cerebral palsy,” he says. “I remember her asking if she could surf at the end of the year. I said yes. We gave it a whirl out there, and she was really excited to be able to participate in something that didn’t seem likely for her. That always stuck with me.”

Fast forward to a decade ago. Viorel, 49, and his wife were looking for a change from their routines in the Bay Area and chose to move to North Carolina, where Jack took a job teaching first grade at St. Mary’s School in Wilmington. The school had a program for kids born with AIDs and HIV.

“I went to the lady who ran it and said I’d like to take some of the kids surfing,” he says. “She talked me into doing a camp in the summer for 20 kids. I was a teacher, with my own family. I wasn’t trying to start a business, and there I was sort of stuck with this.”

Viorel started his own surf school to help subsidize the camps, which offered three week-long sessions the inaugural year. “The first one, in May, was everything I thought it could be. These were kids dying of AIDs. Some of them were off their meds. We took them out surfing, and they had the greatest time. It was great therapy. These kids were going back on their meds because they wanted to go surfing again.

2016 Autism Surf  Camp

“From then until now, it’s been a whirlwind. It just blew up. The next summer we had groups calling--kids with autism, boys’ and girls’ clubs, those with vision problems--and the camps were provided free for them.

“We hear stories about blind kids, their parents letting them do things they never would have before. It’s super life-changing,” Viorel says. “It’s so important to see these kids go from head down, low self-esteem, to an I-can-do-anything lifestyle.”

Viorel eventually left his job at St. Mary’s to operate the surf school and charities full-time. The school, however, began to lag in its ability to fund the growing popularity of the charities.

Last summer, for instance, he was ready to host a camp for 62 kids with autism and was hoping to increase the number to 70. But he was facing a significant shortfall of funds. Then the phone rang.

“I wasn’t going to pick it up. I didn’t recognize the number,” he said.

2016 Autism Surf Camp

It was the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation calling. A Foundation Board Member had read a story in American Airlines’ in-flight magazine about the surf charities, operating in an area where the Spieth family ha roots and frequently spent summer vacations together on the beach.

What, the foundation representative asked, are your immediate needs, and what are your ideas going forward? He told them. A week later, a check arrived.

“It was a godsend for us,” Viorel said. “But they’re interested not just in giving money. I think what they want to do is much more, to teach us to fish rather than giving us the fish.” In other words, using their platform to help tell their story and spread even more awareness.

“I’m just grateful for what they’ve already done. They really helped us in a time of need.”