A surf therapy camp that started in Fall River is now helping kids in Costa Rica

A Fall River native’s mission to provide surf therapy for children in need has expanded internationally, with a camp in Costa Rica that’s about to begin its second season.

“We’re one of the fastest growing surf therapy organizations in the world at the moment,” said Chris Antao, founder of Gnome Surf. “It’s pretty magical to witness.”

Gnome Surf, a nonprofit, offers surf therapy to children with autism, Down syndrome, epilepsy and other challenges. The therapy includes surf lessons, but with a special focus on building up a child’s confidence and pride through learning a new skill, Antao explained.

“It isn’t about surfing. It’s about mental health and wellbeing,” he said.

Antao said surfing helped him grapple with trauma he experienced and aided him as he dealt with anxiety, depression and ADHD.

“I knew it worked, but we also did our research,” he said.

New surf camp in Costa Rica

Gnome Surf hit the water in the Fall River area five years ago. This past winter, Antao took his first group of local families from Greater Fall River to Costa Rica to attend Happy Camp, Gnome Surf’s newest venture.

The camp offers children with conditions like autism and their parents and siblings things like surf therapy, zipline rides and horseback riding, all in the jungles and beaches of Nosara, Costa Rica.

Surfers at Happy Camp, a new surf therapy camp in Costa Rica founded by a Fall River native.

Antao described Happy Camp as a way for families facing special challenges to temporarily escape from day-to-day life.

“It’s just an oasis in the jungle that’s centered around them recentering and rebalancing themselves,” Antao said. “What we’re trying to create there is a world-class wellness retreat for families and facilitate that for them where they can just get away from the hustle and bustle and connect as a family.”

Antao has facilitated surf therapy camps in Costa Rico for a few years now, but this winter was the first time the camps took place in a permanent location on land he owns. Along with serving families from Fall River, Tiverton and Swansea so far, they also also recently ran a camp for around 40 local children from Costa Rica.

What is Gnome Surf doing locally?

Back at home, Gnome Surf is launching a new junior instructor program this season. The program plans to give at-risk youth from the Fall River area lessons in water safety skills and surf therapy, then train them to teach those skills to other people. Antao said it could help area teens find well-paying jobs as life guards during high school and college, along with creating more surf instructors.

“We’re training kids to better themselves with new skills while they create impact in the lives of neurodivergent families,” he said. “Everyone’s this big community.”

Gnome Surf recently expanded its sensory surf shop that opened last year in Little Compton, aimed at being a welcoming space for people with autism.

Gnome Surf founder Chris Antao at his store in Little Compton in 2021

The nonprofit is upping the number of beaches in the Fall River area where they offer surf lessons, having recently added Fenway Beach in Westerly, R.I. to their rotation, and also South Shore in Little Compton, Second Beach in Newport and Horseneck Beach in Westport.

Antao also recently traveled to Texas to offer surf therapy there.

He said he plans to keep expanding the cause of surf therapy in as many directions as he can.

“It’s a whole ecosystem that we’re creating. I call it the octopus approach,” he said.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Gnome Surf therapy for autism and mental health expands to Costa Rica