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Children with special health needs have a carefree day in the Newport surf

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Instructor Tom Swanecamp catches a wave with a participant in the Miracles for Kids surf camp Friday at the Newport Pier in Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

It was at a Miracles for Kids surf camp where Alberto Romero Gonzalez finally spoke.

Alberto was 4 years old at the time and undergoing treatment for leukemia. He also has autism, and until then he had been non-verbal.

With a life jacket and an attentive instructor, he eagerly draped himself on a surfboard and felt the cool, shallow water break and gurgle over him. Then he went ashore and said, “Water,” “ocean,” “I like it.”

“Something happened on that day,” said his mother, Griselda. “It was like a miracle. A total miracle.”

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Alberto is 6 now. His leukemia has been in remission for 10 months. And on Friday he returned to the ocean for another round of the Miracles for Kids surf camp.

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Kenneth Avendano gets to his feet and holds his balance while instructor Joe Iredell keeps him steady on the board as they participate in the Miracles for Kids surf camp Friday in Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Miracles for Kids, a Tustin-based nonprofit that helps lower-income families in Orange and Los Angeles counties while their children are receiving treatment for life-threatening illnesses, partners with a therapeutic surfing organization called Waves of Impact to put on the surf camps.

There is no cost to attend, and siblings are welcome. Kids who aren’t inclined to go into the surf can build sand castles. The organization also puts on paddleboarding camps at the Newport Aquatic Center in Newport Beach.

Julio Godoy, 13, from Orange attended Friday’s surf camp at the Newport Pier with his mom and four younger siblings. He learned how to stand on a board at a previous camp. It reminds him of skateboarding.

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After Julio underwent a bone marrow transplant for aplastic anemia — a rare condition that made him unable to produce enough new blood cells — he developed graft vs. host disease. He now requires lifelong monthly intravenous treatments to maintain an immune system.

He doesn’t feel well some days. Other days, like Friday, he does and he can get in the waves.

“It’s pretty calming,” he said.

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Kenneth Avendano and instructor Joe Iredell high-five each other after a ride in the waves during the Miracles for Kids surf camp at the Newport Pier on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

By day, Ajai Datta is the head of North America retail for the surf lifestyle brand Billabong. In the summer, he volunteers as an instructor for Waves of Impact because it “resets your soul to understand what’s important in life.”

Tom Swanecamp serves on the boards of both Miracles for Kids and Waves of Impact, the latter of which he founded. Waves of Impact also teaches wounded veterans and children with autism how to surf. The telecommunications executive from Dana Point combined his love for the ocean with his longtime service to Miracles for Kids.

The day camps are a party. Families meet at Children’s Hospital of Orange County to venture out in shuttle buses. Before one camp, Swanecamp recalled, a young boy asked him, “Mr. Tom,” if he was really going surfing or if it was another trick to lure him into uncomfortable tests and checkups. He assured him it was a day for real fun.

Some participants have never seen the beach before, unable to afford the sundries, Swanecamp said.

“We take for granted sunscreen, towels, coolers, beverages, beach chairs,” he said.

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Kenneth Avendano gets to his feet at Friday's Miracles for Kids surf camp in Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Twenty-seven children like Julio and Alberto were in Newport Beach on Friday.

Alberto’s family calls him Moso, as in hermoso , meaning beautiful or handsome one in Spanish.

Griselda Romero Gonzalez called Miracles for Kids a lifeline. After Moso was diagnosed with cancer at age 2, she exhausted her time off from her job as a Walmart manager to care for him. The family — Moso and mom, sister Destiny and dad Juan — received an eviction notice at their Anaheim apartment and utility shutoff notices.

Miracles for Kids gave them a grant to help with living expenses, then moved them into a furnished apartment in a building it had just purchased and renovated near CHOC. With all rent covered for two years, the family could pay off debt and get the financial stability to qualify for a first-time homebuyer mortgage in Perris.

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Instructor Tom Swanecamp rides alongside as Christopher Godoy jumps off his board during the Miracles for Kids surf camp Friday at the Newport Pier in Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Moso’s communication Friday was still mostly through body language and sounds, but with his finger-wriggling and squeals, he showed he was happy to go out on a board again.

“He’s a thrill seeker,” his mom said.

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