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Surfing, smiling for special-needs kids

Tamika Thompson, 11, learns to surf with a

Tamika Thompson, 11, learns to surf with a Skudin Surf School instructor as part of a program run by the Children's Learning Center of the United Cerebral Palsy Association. (July 31, 2012) Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Jalen Lanoix knelt on his surfboard as it coasted toward shore, his face beaming as he rode the Atlantic Ocean waves.

A nearby surf instructor helped Jalen off the board and onto Long Beach, where the 11-year-old with cerebral palsy knelt in the sand and felt the surf lap against his legs.

"That smile on his face today is worth everything," his mother, Nyree Francis-Lanoix, said, wiping tears. "This might be one of the best days of his life."

Jalen was one of 14 students from the Roosevelt-based Children's Learning Center who relatives and officials said caught waves Tuesday for the first time. Instructors from a nonprofit surfing group helped the children -- some of whom struggle with walking -- ride their surfboards.

The center -- which teaches about 250 children with disabilities from ages 1 to 21 -- is the educational arm of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County. Unconventional therapy such as the afternoon surf lessons are essential to keep students motivated, UCPN executive director Robert McGuire said.

"There's multiple ways to get in touch with people, and one of them is water," McGuire said. "It connects them with the world."

The Children's Learning Center organizes out-of-school events year-round for its students, including ballet, skiing and horseback riding, school officials said.

It partnered for Tuesday's lessons with Surf for All, a Long Beach-based nonprofit that gives lessons to economically disadvantaged and special-needs students.

Founded in 2002, Surf for All has previously focused on surfers with autism or visual impairment, said co-founder Will Skudin, whose family owns and operates a company that gives surfing lessons in Long Beach.

"Takers never make it," Skudin, 27, said. "It's about giving."

When older brother Cliff Skudin pulled Javier Reyes, 5, off his board, Javier giddily kicked his feet in the air, a toothy grin on his face.

"He's not going to stop talking about this for days," mother Levia Guadalupe said through an interpreter.

Added Cliff, "This is the highlight of my summer. You remember bits and pieces of each day . . . and then you think of these kids smiling."

For children such as Jalen, the surfing lessons were a small dose of summer fun many people take for granted, his mother said. "He loves the water, and he loves the beach," Francis-Lanoix said. "But for him to be able to get out on that surfboard . . . words can't even express it."

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