A Little Compton Non-profit Brings Smiles with Surf Therapy

Gnome Surf empowers youth of all abilities through aquatic sports

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If you hear triumphant whoops mingling with the splash and froth of waves on Little Compton beach this summer, and then spot an onlooker shedding a tear of joy, there’s a good chance you are witnessing the magic of Gnome Surf therapy.

“Gnome Surf is a non-profit surf therapy organization serving kids of all abilities, with a focus on those with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, depression, and anxiety,” explains founder and executive director Christopher Antao. “Our research shows that over 98 percent of our athletes feel happier from the experience, over 93 percent feel more self-confident, 100 percent of them would try it again, and 100 percent of parents would recommend it. So you can see the power of surf therapy!”

Though Gnome Surf now also takes place in Middletown and nearby Westport – with hopes of expanding to Narragansett – Antao chose Little Compton as the original location because of its accessibility and the pitch of the wave. “It doesn’t get too deep too quickly, which means better footing and overall safety.” He credits the local Beach Commission and head lifeguard Jim Farrell as valued partners. “Any given day we can be surfing with close to 50 children, and we truly appreciate how accommodating they’ve been to our programs.”

The team is currently gearing up for a record-breaking summer. “We are in the water every day from May 15 until October 15 and by April this year, we were sold out for the season,” says Antao.

He hastens to add that they have employed more instructors to open up availability for individual lessons and group workshops and notes that they are always interested to hear from avid surfers, for both paid and volunteer positions. “Last year we started with four instructors; this year, we’re on course for 25. By the end of the season, we’ll be looking at a total of 2,300 families served since we first launched in 2017.”

There’s a reason Antao enjoys the numbers – his background is in investment banking, a lucrative career he left behind to pursue what he feels is his calling. As a child, he faced adversity and coped with ADHD, so he relates to what many of his students are going through and is on a mission to foster “acceptance, equality, and inclusion.”

“Most families that sign up are used to hearing that their child can’t do something and all of a sudden they come to this welcoming environment and we meet them at their level,” says Antao. “The kids get to show their parents what they are capable of, and surfing is not something everyone can do!”

Cheering and tears from the sidelines, both from family members and beach-goers, aren’t unusual sights. “Some of our athletes have regular fans who come to applaud them,” Antao shares. “For me, the feel-good factor is the smiles on the kids’ faces. Academics have said these kids don’t recognize emotion, but I’ve had over 3,000 hours in the water with them – I know they feel the healing nature of the ocean. As soon as they come to the beach, they reach out and grab my hand – they can’t wait to go surfing!” 

Follow @gnomesurf on Instagram for photos of students’ accomplishments and visit GnomeSurf.com to learn more.

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