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LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — When MacKenzie Palumbo first heard about Gnome Surf — a Little Compton-based nonprofit offering surf therapy — she was skeptical.

Her twin sons, Cash and Hollis Palumbo, are both diagnosed with autism and sensory processing disorder. Hollis is non-verbal; Cash has limited communication.

A friend, “who’s also an autism mom, kept saying, ‘You should really try surfing,’” said Palumbo, of Fall River, Massachusetts. “But we were so busy with other mainstream therapies, I thought: My gosh, how is surfing going to help?”

Three years later, surfing with Gnome “is everything to us.”

Gnome Surf aims to harness the therapeutic power of the ocean and the act of surfing to help neurodivergent kids.
Gnome Surf aims to harness the therapeutic power of the ocean and the act of surfing to help neurodivergent kids. Bethany Foltz for Gnome Surf

“They sleep better, they’re eating more,” she said of her sons, who are now 13. “They’re gaining more independence, more body awareness, their listening skills are improving. In the last year, their confidence has blossomed.”

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They’re “more with us,” she said, and when they see their surf instructors, “they light up.”

“So often with our kids, it’s about what they can’t do — he can’t read, he can’t write,” Palumbo said. “Surfing has broken those barriers.”

“When you’re standing on the beach and have crowds of other parents cheering for your kid, it’s magical,” she added.

Founded by Chris Antao in 2015, Gnome aims to harness the therapeutic power of the ocean and the act of surfing to help anyone, but is especially focused on helping neurodivergent kids. The novel therapy has been used to treat veterans with PTSD, anxiety and depression in the US, and it has been recognized “as an effective form of therapy for children and young people at risk of mental ill-health,” according to U.K.-based The Wave Project.

“I believe every child can be helped through surf therapy, but our main focus is neurodivergent children,” said Antao, of Fall River. “Most of our children have autism, we have a high-population of kids with Down syndrome, and ADHD.”

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Antao, 40, is a certified adaptive surf instructor through the International Surfing Association, and he attests to the power of surf himself, having grown up with undiagnosed ADHD.

“When I found surfing, I found peace. It’s the one time I could focus and slow down my mind,” he said. “I knew surfing had this power, and that’s what led me to create Gnome.”

He began surfing at age 12 in Lisbon, Portugal, where his father is from; his mother is from the Azores.

“Portugal has some of the best waves in the world. I grew up visiting those beaches, enamored with the sport. I eventually got in the water and realized this was a game-changer as far as my mental health went,” he said.

Surfing still helps him, he said, as does working in surf therapy.

“Surfing with these kids, I couldn’t feel in a better spot emotionally, physically, mentally,” said Antao. “There’s no better feeling than being able to share this gift — which we refer to as ‘stoke’ — with my little athletes, watching them light up. That’s magic.”

Gnome’s mission is to “create a cultural shift toward kindness, love, and acceptance for all kids, of all abilities,” and while Gnome athletes range from 1 to 38 years, most are under 14. According to Antao, families from as far away as Texas and Florida have traveled to Rhode Island for lessons with Gnome, which is part of the International Surf Therapy Organization.

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“We all go through struggles in life. Sometimes we try to fight those struggles — but maybe we shouldn’t be fighting. We should be flowing. We can’t stop every wave. But we can learn to ride them. And wave by wave, you see their self-esteem build,” Antao said. “What we’re really teaching these kids is how to fall off the board and get back up again.”

Gnome employs 11 paid instructors and a group of some 50 volunteers that Gnome dubs the “Kind Tribe.” They include special education teachers, nurses, yogis, artists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and physicians’ assistants. Gnome holds free “Happy Camps” for kids during the summer, along with individual surfing lessons from May through October. In the off season, Gnome offers yoga, indoor surf fitness, and art therapy in Little Compton and Fall River.

Geo Mottram, 17, of Little Compton, started surfing with Gnome as a client six years ago. Now he’s an instructor, finalizing his ISA certification.

As an infant, he said, he had “scattered bleeding spots in my brain. The result is, for a while, I was partially parlayed on the left side. I had seizures, up to 30 a day; difficulty speaking, nervous system damage, major sensory processing issues, trouble interacting with the world. That’s what helps me connect to the kids — any communication barrier they might have, I’ve already been through.”

As a little kid, “I was bullied a lot. When I started surf therapy, mentally I was in pretty rough shape. So that was the biggest benefit — a super huge boost in confidence, all of the mental amazingness that comes with surfing,” said Mottram. “It brings you right in the moment — you’re not thinking about school, you’re not thinking about what that kid said — you’re just surfing. As you let go, you can feel the confidence rise.”

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It’s a change he now sees in his students.

“I can almost see myself in a lot of the kids,” he said. “You’ve got a kid who is obviously struggling, and I’m somehow able to help him that little bit? That’s mind-blowing.”

A senior at Portsmouth High School, Mottram plans to work in surf therapy “for the rest of my life.”

“I’ll be 80 years old, teaching surf therapy. I’ll need a walker to get out there, but once I’m there, I’ll be good,” he said with a laugh.

Gnome Surf is now part of a pilot global study through the International Surf Therapy Organization.
Gnome Surf is now part of a pilot global study through the International Surf Therapy Organization.Bethany Foltz for Gnome Surf

Mother of four Whitney Senghore, of Tiverton, has noticed a significant change in her 7-year-old son, Masanneh “Masi” Ceesay, who has autism and is mostly non-verbal. A natural “thrill-seeker,” Masi has thrived with surf therapy.

“We’ve noticed such an improvement — at school, at home, his mood, his academics,” she said. “His ability to sit down and wait. When he comes home from sessions he sits down and relaxes, he’s calm, he plays calmly, he’s more centered and focused.”

Gnome recently received a grant from the Rathmann Family Foundation, and has been recognized by the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation. According to Antao, they’re now part of a pilot global study through the International Surf Therapy Organization. He says the study is expected to be published in the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice in 2022.

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In February 2022, Gnome is launching a Happy Camp in Nosara, Costa Rica. It will include surf lessons, horseback riding, zip-lining, and more.

“We’re trying to offer these families a world-class escape from everyday struggles,” Antao said. “A lot of these families don’t have the capacity to go on vacation, so we’re trying to facilitate that for them and keep the magic flowing through the winter.”

Dana Riveire of Tiverton is hoping to go to Costa Rica this winter with her kids Henry, 8, and Amelia, 13. Both surf with Gnome.

A friend suggested surfing for Henry, who has autism. Riveire, and her husband George, were initially hesitant. But when they gave it a try, Henry “adored it. It was amazing to see him laughing as he got knocked off the surfboard.”

After watching her brother have fun, Amelia signed up. That was three years ago. Both kids still find a “joy” and “peace” on the water, she said.

Riveire recalled a moment when Henry and Amelia caught the same wave, crowds cheering from the shore.

“There are so few places that both of my children can do something together. This has been a special gift for our family,” she said. “To feel that love and joy is such a special thing.”

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.