Meet The People Making Perth OK: Ocean Heroes Australia

byTroy Mutton
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All photos by DG Imagery, taken from the Ocean Heroes Facebook Page.

Welcome to a new semi-regular series where we help you get to know the people of Perth making moves. The type of people who make us #PerthProud, getting it done in our isolated little corner of the world across a variety of different worlds and industries.

Following our chats with StreetX founder Dan Bradshaw and MOVE/Freedom Time founder Ben Taaffe, today we’re beyond stoked to introduce you to the absolute legends at Ocean Heroes Australia.

The WA-based not-for-profit is the brainchild of Luke Hallam, Sam Moyle and Tom Johnston, providing children with autism the opportunity for a day spent hitting the sand and surf. In a highly supported and structured environment, these kids are provided with an opportunity they may not normally get to experience, namely the thrill of catching waves. It’s an incredible initiative, one that’s become wildly popular in just a few short years, with registration days hitting capacity within minutes of going online.

With events coming up in Perth on February 16 and down in Esperance on March 29, we figured there’s no better time to get to know one of the crews making Perth awesome:

First up, can you give us a little background on yourselves, and how the idea for Ocean Heroes Australia came about?

The idea came about after Luke (Hallam, co-founder and a personal trainer who specialises training kids with autism in the gym) found that none of his 50 or so clients had ever gone surfing. Once realising this, he found a group overseas that did exactly that, took kids with autism surfing, and got Sam (Moyle, co-founder) involved to fundraise and bring the group to WA. Both Sam (a marine biologist) and Luke have been good mates for years, and got together with a few others to compete in the Molokai2Oahu Paddleboard World Championships in 2015 and 2016, all in the aim of autism awareness and fundraising. In March 2016, the boys helped run the first surfing event for kids on the spectrum in WA, and by May 2016 had started Ocean Heroes with the help of local surf coach Tom ‘Bomber’ Johnston.

It’s been running since 2016, what have been some of the highlights over the years?

There have definitely been some amazing moments over the past few years, too many to reel off without a few cold ones at hand. However, seeing a scared, shy and unhappy participant prior to surfing, transform into happy, excited and confident person after the experience is just unreal. It’s something we witness at every event, and it shines onto the parents and families of these kids, as well as the volunteers that take them surfing.

We’ve also been fortunate enough to be welcomed with open arms wherever we go. We hold regional events in Denmark and Geraldton, which have both been so accommodating and supportive which is a really good thing to have when you’re travelling for events.

And what are some of the major lessons you’ve learnt, be it operations- or just life-wise, over that time?

We seem to learn something new with every event, whether it be logistics related, participant/volunteer management or something more fine scale. That’s probably the great thing about all of this, we are fairly new, so we come across new experiences and lessons all the time. One key aspect for us that we realise is crucial is having a big army of volunteers, and being grateful for any amount of support shown. This organisation wouldn’t be where it is today without volunteers, and we’ve learnt to make sure they have just as much fun as the kids!

What is it about the ocean and surfing you think resonates with children with autism, and do you see much change with kids who come back event-to-event?

The ocean has always been a relaxing place to go and unwind, and throwing a surfboard into the mix seems to add to that. The sound, smell and sight of the waves, current, bubbles, and wind that seem to really have a positive impact on the kids we take. Most people on the autism spectrum have sensory disorders so they may see, hear and feel things at a higher or lower level than neuro-typical people do. Therefore, with the ocean being a very sensory environment, it tends to stimulate and enthral them.

We have had kids that have come down to almost every event and progress to a level where they’re buying their own surfboards and paddling into waves by themselves. We have also seen participants come down three or four times and not get in the water but after developing a trust with our volunteers and a better understanding, they jump on the board and brave the ocean.

Is there scope do you think to apply this across different disabilities, and perhaps within even different sports/activities?

Absolutely, there’s a long-standing group called Disabled Surfing Association (DSA); which take a range of disabilities surfing. They run a little different to the way we do, however the overall concept is the same, using the surf as a natural ‘therapy’. There are also groups that help out people suffering from PTSD and mental health through surfing, showing that it can be applied across the board. We’d love to expand Ocean Heroes to have more of a reach, however we’re currently at capacity, and the demand from the autism community is our main priority.

What are some of the challenges you face when it comes to running a not-for-profit organisation, and one that seems to be growing at a very rapid rate?

We face the same problems every other not-for-profit encounter; limited time to during the week to manage all that’s required operationally (as we all work full time in other jobs), and the consistent chase for financial support and volunteer attendance. We do however have an amazing group of volunteers that make life a lot easier and manage to cater for our massive demand for events.

We will always be chasing more volunteers, and stretching the friendships constantly to maintain the needs of the organisation through its growing phase!

OHA is the only operation of its kind in the world, based out of little old Perth, what are some of the advantages you’ve found being Perth-based?

Perth being Perth definitely helps us; a small town feel where everyone knows everyone. We have the most amazing group of volunteers who come down and help tirelessly across the season, who all share the same passion for the ocean and helping others.

Any disadvantages?

The only real disadvantage of being based in Perth is that it has one of the most consistent summer weather patterns around Australia; the ‘Freo Doctor’ our afternoon sea breeze. This comes in from anywhere between 10am-12pm most days throughout summer, creating windy, choppy conditions with a strong current. This produces fairly tricky conditions to run an event in, and is almost impossible by mid-afternoon.

Because of this, we can only run half day events until roughly 1:30pm, after this, conditions become too much of a stretch to safely take kids surfing. This then means we have a limited time to take kids surfing, reducing the number of participants at our events.

Volunteers are obviously crucial to event day and we image in the day-to-day operations as well, how big’s the team and are you always on the hunt for new crew to help out?

Correct, volunteers are absolutely crucial to the event, without them we wouldn’t exist! Currently we have over 500 volunteers on our private Facebook group (Ocean Heroes Volunteers for those wanting to join), and constantly growing. We’ve got a smaller core group of volunteers (roughly 20-30) who are amazing help at both local and regional events.

We’re always chasing more volunteers. We need anywhere between 50-80 volunteers throughout the day at each event. A morning session from setup – 11am, and afternoon from 10:30am – pack up (~2:30pm). These volunteers are split up between beach (registrations, lifejackets and wetsuits, certificates, merchandise etc.) and water (surfers, assistants, board rescue etc.), and we’re always open for more.

How do you think Perth rates in terms of helping kids with autism in general?

Australia, and in particular Perth is one of the best places to live in the world with ASD. By no means does this mean everything is perfect, and clearly there are a lot of areas we can improve. The reason we started Ocean Heroes is because Perth people on the spectrum didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to surf in a safe and inclusive environment. Not only this, but there are plenty of other activities out there that people with ASD either miss out or are being left out of.

One thing that we can improve on as a community is increasing our understanding and awareness around ASD, with this being a huge product of our events. We have over 70 volunteers come down per event who are usually aged between 18-30 who get exposed to over 150 people from all ends of the spectrum. They’ll then take those experiences and share with their circles and communities which all go towards increasing the awareness.

And lastly what’s the long-term vision for OHA, it seems like demand is only going to get bigger and bigger, and we’ve seen you’ve started to take the concept over east as well?

Because it is a free event (which we’ll keep that way) it doesn’t exclude any family, and provides an opportunity for anyone on the autism spectrum wanting to try.

We have reached a level now where the demand is so high it’s almost comparable with an event like the Rotto Swim registrations. We book out 120-150 participants for each event within 5 minutes of opening registrations online. Therefore, our aim is to cater for this massive demand by increasing the size of events and consistency over summer. However, this is really only possible through sponsorship and support both financially and on the ground resources going forward. As we all know, there’s only so much you can ask from volunteers.

Follow Ocean Heroes Australia on INSTAGRAM and FACEBOOK, and check their WEBSITE.