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INTERVIEW: A Walk On Water Executive Director Sean Swentek On Surf Therapy In Montauk And More

Nicole Barylski

AWOW is presenting Surf Therapy Days in Montauk on Friday, September 7 and Sunday, September 8. (Photo: James Katsipis)

A Walk On Water (AWOW) is making its way to the East Coast for the fourth year in a row to empower children with special needs or disability by showing them the transformative properties of the sea.

We caught up with AWOW Executive Director Sean Swentek to learn more about the back-to-back Montauk Surf Therapy Days (Friday, September 7 and Sunday, September 8) at Ditch Plains and the 4th Annual East Coast Surf Therapy Fundraiser (on Saturday, September 8) at the Montauk Beach House:

How long have you been a part of A Walk on Water?

SS: Since the beginning - I'm one of the guys who helped created the organization so that would have been back in September of 2012. So six years now. That's pretty exciting.

You host events on both coasts. Tell me a bit about the role local community members play at these Surf Therapy events?

SS: It's absolutely crucial to what we do. When A Walk on Water was growing, the only way we were able to do that in a way we thought was the right way to do that was to really engage the local community of whatever city or town or area that we were trying to host an event in. We don't ever go in blind, if you will, to a new area. In the instance of Montauk, it was kind of our first big growth outside of Southern California. We have Laura Rubin in our organization and she was bicoastal, spent a lot of time in the City, but also in Montauk and had created a lot of valuable relationships out there so she sort of handfed us into that community and introduced us to a lot of the really important key players that still to this day play a key part in making our Montauk event happen. We really value those relationships and the way they've become leaders in the organization, especially on the East Coast.

Is there a cutoff date to volunteer for the Montauk event?

SS: There's not. As long as there's spots open, we'll gladly take new volunteers. You just go on our website to the event's page and just RSVP to be there as a volunteer. Based on your level of expertise or special skills, we assign you to a particular volunteer position at the event. Obviously, there's surf instructors that take the kids surfing. There's also water safety personal, generally lifeguards or people that are very comfortable in the water. Outside of those water-based positions, we have numerous volunteer opportunities on the beach for those people that might not be a surfer or waterman where they can help families check-in, get acclimated to the event, help kids get in and out of wetsuits, act as a chaperone to the child throughout the day as they go through the various activities throughout the day because A Walk on Water events are about a lot more than just surf therapy. There's yoga, live music, art therapy, all sorts of different activities that the families get to participate in throughout the day.

This is the sole two-day AWOW surf therapy event. (Photo: James Katsipis)

Could you speak a bit about the benefits of participating in the event for the athletes?

SS: There's certainly a benefit for anyone getting into the ocean and experiencing the transformative power of the ocean and waves. That's the reason we all started A Walk on Water - we're all waterman and surfers and recognized how beneficial surfing was for us and how it improved our outlook and feelings and everything. We really recognized the ability for it to have an even more profound effect on children who might have special needs or a disability and have a decreased access or ability to experience it on their own. We've seen countless results of all different kinds for different children of different disabilities. The overarching thing is that getting into the water and experiencing some surf therapy is incredibly beneficial for the child. One of the neat things that we do is include the child with special needs' other siblings or family members with them in the surf therapy. So if they have a "normal" sibling who doesn't often get to do activities together, they get to experience this together and it's sort of a shared triumph - all at the same time with their family on the beach cheering them on. It's just a really beneficial day at the beach to sort of unwind and recover from the day to day grind.

While out in Montauk, A Walk on Water is also hosting its annual fundraiser at The Montauk Beach House. What will that entail?

SS: This will be the fourth straight year that that is happening. This is our fourth year overall in Montauk and Montauk Beach House has been an important partner for us since day one. They've housed our volunteers that we fly over from California - so they play a huge role there in offsetting the cost of the event and they've graciously hosted our fundraiser each year. It's grown each year from some local community members coming by looking at local artists' works to last year being our biggest fundraiser to date - as far as dollars raised. We're actually hearing about people that are driving out from the City just to be at the fundraiser. It's starting to get known as one of those fundraisers you've got to be at each year. We're pretty excited about that and the money raised goes towards furthering our efforts in Montauk and throughout the greater New York area. This year is the first year that we've actually grown our presence, as far as events on the East Coast. We had an event earlier in the season in New Jersey that was a huge success, thanks in large part to the local surf school, Hammer Surf School, there. We're going to be venturing to Virginia Beach in October for the first time. We have plans to host an event somewhere in the Rockaways or on Long Island next year and just continue to grow the reach that we have on the East Coast and bring surf therapy to as many kids as we can.

How many events per year do you usually hold?

SS: This year we'll have ten events. Montauk is our only two-day surf therapy event. We take kids Friday and Saturday so we're able to reach twice as many kids during the Montauk event. This was a big growth year for us. Prior to this, we had six events last year and we had only grown by about one event a year in our first five years so we really kind of tried to hit it out of the park this year and reach as many kids as we could with the funding that we had.

This marks AWOW's 4th annual Surf Therapy Days. (Photo: James Katsipis)

What's your hope for the organization?

SS: There's a lot of things. I hope that we can continue to impact as many lives as possible. I know there's still thousands upon thousands of children alone in the US that could benefit from the service we offer and a lot of the other organizations that do what we do. My hope would be that we can continue to expose these kids to this really valid form of therapy that we call surf therapy and really impact as many lives as possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

SS: You can still reserve your ticket for the fundraiser on Saturday night. You can sign up to volunteer and there's actually still some participants spots available for the Friday session if anyone has an athlete that would like to participate.

For the Saturday fundraiser, will tickets be available at the door?

SS: Yes.

Surf Therapy Days will take place on Friday, September 7 and Saturday, September 8 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both days. The 4th Annual East Coast Surf Therapy Fundraiser will take place at The Montauk Beach House on Saturday, September 8 from 6 to 10 p.m. The benefit will include both live and silent auctions, DJ sets, and more.

Ditch Plains Beach is located at 18 Ditch Plains Road in Montauk and The Montauk Beach House is located at 55 South Elmwood Avenue in Montauk. For more information, visit awalkonwater.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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