Drew Haslam was reluctant. At least at first.
There was a lot of commotion: The pounding of the surf. Strangers everywhere. The feel of sand beneath his feet, the salt in the water and a long board tab a man he’s never met put him atop and paddled away, into the sea and away from his parents.
Several minutes later, Drew, 8, stood up on that long board with that strange man he’s never met and rode a wave all the way to the shore.
He was no longer reluctant.
“We knew he’d be a little scared,” Drew’s father, Andrew Haslam, said. “But as soon as they got him out there, we knew there’d be no problem.”
And that’s how it went all day long, with child after child as professional surfers from the nonprofit organization Surfers Healing and kids with autism rode into and out of the surf on Belmar’s 7th Avenue Beach on Sunday. The event was part of the 9th Annual Beach Bash, sponsored by the Autism Family Foundation of New Jersey.
During the two-day event, which ends Monday, a phalanx of surfers from around the world expected to take out about 400 children, many for their first experience with the ocean.
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For the hundreds of people gathered on the beach, planning for the event actually started in May, with a first-come, first-served registration frenzy on the Surfers Healing website and Facebook page.
There are only so many spots available for kids to sign up, and only so many professional surfers to go around. And demand for the program is outrageously high. The session fills up within minutes.
Sunday, a wait list grew for the dozens of kids who wanted to surf but were unable to register during the few minutes before the roster was full.
It didn’t start out that way, said Fran Hines, assistant superintendent of public works in Belmar. The group’s first year there were a couple of surfers and a handful of kids.
Hines said the event started out in Belmar about six years ago, simply enough, with two tents and a box of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“I never thought they would pull it off,’’ Hines said. “How are you going to teach kids with autism how to surf? It seemed crazy.”
But Sunday, there was an art tent, music, hula-hoop contests and constant live entertainment, a slip and slide, a dunk dank, food, sodas and numerous other activities. Parking, which is already at a premium in Belmar, was reserved for participating families at Silver Lake, with shuttles running all day for those who needed them.
Even Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno was expected to address the crowd afternoon Sunday.
Last year’s event attracted more than 5,000, according to Autism Family services of New Jersey. At least as many were expected this year, the organization said.
All was provided free to families of children with autism, which affects one in every 49 individuals in New Jersey, according to a 2012 report from the federal Center for Disease Control.
But each year the main attraction is the surfing event run by Surfers Healing, a nonprofit group founded by Israel and Danielle Paskowitz.
Isaiah, the Paskowitz’s son, has autism and often suffered from sensory overload, common among those with the disorder. But the ocean calmed him, according to the group’s website.
A former competitive surfer, Israel put Isaiah on the front of his surfboard while his father steered from the back. The pair spent the day surfing together. It had a profound impact on Isaiah, and his parents set out to give the same experience to other children.
This year, Surfers Healing will hold 14 camps at sites from California to New York.
“These guys are magic, I’ll tell you what, these surfer guys,’’ said Hines, who has a 15-year-old son with autism. “They’re the real deal.’’
Shivering from the chilly water, but clearly delighted, Drew Haslam’s expression is testament to that. So, too, are the eyes of his father, beginning to well with tears of joy.
“It was awesome,’’ Haslam said. “Best experience we’ve had yet.”