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The Heartwarming Story Behind Ted Silverberg, Mikke Pierson & Others Taking Blind Children Surfing

The following article is Part 2 of an excerpt from Cash Lambert's book Surf Therapy: The Evidence-Based Science for Physical, Mental and Emotional Well-Being, published by Hatherleigh Press and Penguin Random House in 2024.

The first instance of surf therapy by the International Surf Therapy Organization’s specific definition — "The use of surfing  as a vehicle for delivering intentional, inclusive, population-specific, and  evidenced-based therapeutic structures to promote psychological, physical, and psychosocial well-being" — took place on July 3, 1986, at Ventura County Line, where Ted Silverberg and a group of surfer friends took blind children surfing. 

Ted, a surfer in his late 20s, owned and operated Paradise Surfing Lessons in Malibu, California.

The Braille Institute of Los Angeles contacted him and explained their summer program, where they gave  their visually impaired students a chance to experience sports that they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to, including rock climbing, waterskiing, camping, and more.

They wanted to know if Ted would take them surfing.  

“They just asked me if I could teach some blind children to surf,  and I told them there was only one way to find out,” he said in an  interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Ted and a blind participant. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

But before the surfing event, Ted wanted to gain a greater under standing for the kids and their swimming ability.

He loaded up a bunch of longboards on top of his car and drove south from Malibu to the  Braille Institute in Los Angeles.

Once there, he placed a surfboard in  the pool, sat on it, and told the kids, one at a time, to swim out to him. 

They could swim well and could balance on the board well with Ted.  

But he noticed something troublesome: each of the children would  jump off the board and swim to the side of the pool, knowing where safety was based off memory.

Newspapers and news stations frequented Ted's surf therapy events. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

In the unfamiliar ocean, they wouldn’t  have this ability. If a child fell off the board, he or she could start  swimming directly out to sea without realizing it.  

To prepare for this, Ted and a few surfer friends he recruited to  help as volunteers went to Malibu’s Surfrider Beach.

There, Ted paddled  and tried to catch waves with his eyes closed and realized just how  challenging it would be to do so blind.  

So, on July 3, Ted, and a few other volunteer surf instructors arrived at County Line.

“The reason we were there is because there were no lifeguards or police who might tell us we couldn’t do it at that  location,” Ted told me.

The children from the Braille Institute arrived, about 20 in the ages of 5–18. Most were legally blind, and a few others were completely blind.  

Pure stoke. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

Since most, if not all, of the participants knew nothing of the ocean  and had never even been to the beach, Ted and the instructors first explained waves and the tide—Ted cupped his hand in the shape of a  wave and allowed the participants to feel it to help prove the point— and then taught the students how to stand up on a board.

The surf experience would be a 1:1 ratio, with Ted and the instructors paddling  for waves, and telling the children when to stand and enjoy the ride.  

What happened next was hard to describe without bringing tears  to Ted’s eyes. He remembers a child feeling the saltwater spray from a  wave in his face and saying ‘wow, it tastes salty!’ He remembers a child  touching seaweed for the first time and not knowing what it was. He remembers the facial expressions as they caught waves.  

“It was the greatest experience I ever had,” he said.  

Ted helping a blind participant feel a surfboard. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

Having had such a profound experience taking the blind partic ipants surfing, Ted decided to take the participants surfing again. He  had no idea at the time what it would grow into. 

Ted rallied sponsors like Body Glove, who donated wetsuits, and  BZ Surfboards, who donated 9 feet long, 5 inch thick boards. By their  second year, they had more than a dozen sponsors, including Zuma  Jay Surfboards, Mugsea Actionwear, Body Glove Wetsuits, Astrodeck,  Aloegator, Casio, Vuarnet and more. 

He also rallied more surf instructor volunteers—Todd Roberts,  Jamie Brisick, Mikke Pierson, Tim Ball, Jeff Edgar, Bob Terry and  Casey Fleming—and for training, he took them out to Surfrider Beach  to help them understand what the kids would experience.  

From left to right: Todd Roberts, Mikke Pierson,Ted Silverberg, and Bob Terry all smiles before taking blind children surfing. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

Mikke Pierson remembers that in order to prepare, they each  paddled around at Surfrider Beach with their eyes closed to try and understand what the participants would be experiencing. 

In the mid-1980s, Ted and other surfers didn’t have surf forecasting  sites at their fingertips, so he relied on friend Sean Collins, the founder  of Surfline, to tell him when the waves would be not too big, but not  too small for taking the kids surfing. 

For the next events, instead of the County Line, Ted decided to  hold events at Surfrider Beach. But that presented a problem: with a  crowded and heavily localized lineup, the risk of a volunteer and child  getting run into or run over was extremely high.  

Before the time of permits that would clear the spot, they decided  to get creative. Ted asked some locals to block and keep the waters clear  so that no one would get hurt.  

“Taking over Malibu was a heroic feat,” Ted said.  

Mikke told me that while some surfers respected it, a few didn’t. 

“I had taken off on a wave, and our water patrol was trying to stop an  old guy on a longboard who didn’t give a damn what we were doing,  and we all collided. Tumbling upside down with a blind participant and  we’re all in the white water…I popped up and didn’t see him. I was in  a complete panic. I found him under the board. I remember thinking  ‘wow, this is intense.’ This is real life.” 

“People were mind blown that legally blind kids would have the guts to do this,” Ted said. “And I agreed with them.”  

“One kid kept saying, ‘I’m not scared, I’m not scared, I’m not  scared,” Silverberg recalled. “I asked him why he kept saying it, and he  said, ‘Everybody tells me I have a fear of everything, and I have to keep  saying I’m not afraid.’ He was great out there. He loved it.” 

Ted was inspired by the participant's ability to not fear the waves. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

“There’s no doubt that they’re scared when they first try it, but  we try and reassure them,” said Steve Lackey, assistant director at the  Braille Institute’s youth center. “The goal is to let them overcome their  fears.”

When Ted and I first spoke, he communicated that he had a trove of archives that put all of these memories into photos. After flying into Kona, located on the Hawaii’s Big Island, I met him at his beautiful property perched on a mountainside with endless views of the Pacific  on the horizon. 

Ted began pulling photos out of his storage area and putting them  on the kitchen table for me to examine. The photos brought tears to  my eyes: a much younger version of Ted, with a BZ surfboard under his  arm, holding hands with a blind girl wearing a green Body Glove rash  guard and walking her back from a surf session; A yearbook style photo  of him, sitting with dozens of blind children at the Braille Institute,  holding a surfboard and absolutely beaming; him going down the line  of a wave with a participant.  

Amongst the photos, I found an excerpt from Surfer Magazine, circa 1989, that read:  

“A familiar scene, with a twist: As young Brian Goldblatt  Grips the nose of a soft surfboard, Paradise Surfing Lessons  instructor Ted Silverberg turns into a small right at First Point  Malibu. If Brian looks more excited than the average first time  grommet, that’s because he’s blind, and is getting stoked on the  pure sensuous feeling of riding a cracking, fast wave through  cool waters on a hot summer day. On Thursday, July 20, Brian  and 20 of his schoolmates from the Los Angeles Braille Institute  spent a Thursday afternoon in 3–4 foot surf at Malibu with  Silverberg, Bob Terry, Todd Roberts and Mike Pierson. As  cheers went up from the beach, each of the kids had a chance  to experience something that would otherwise be off-limits to  them. Most of the beginners were scared at first, as they tried to  identify and sort out the cacophony of sounds, smells and feel ings bombarding them from the ocean and the beach. However,  Brian’s after-session dance is indicative of how he enjoyed the  experience, and all his schoolmates responded similarly, as they added surf stoke to their inventory of new sensations.”

But the benefits were not isolated to the participants. The volunteers  also experienced an unusual feeling of stoke. “When you’re done with  that kind of day, you’re so amped,” Mikke told me. “As much as you  give back, you get more in return. I’ll never forget that stoke of working  with the kids. It was a mind-blowing feeling.”  

Both Ted and Mikke told me “It was never a thought that we were  the first.” They didn’t think about growing it into an organization. They just wanted to lend a helping hand.  

Ted and several of the participants. Photo courtesy Ted Silverberg

Along with giving back, Ted explained that the perception of surfers in the 1980s wasn’t the best. Giving back could help this perception, and “show surfing had class, prestige, and was a good sport,” he said.  

After 2000, Ted stopped doing the events, the tides of life pulling  him and the other surf volunteers in different directions.  

While digging through Ted’s archives, I found a typed letter he  wrote after the first event that summarized the essence of what had  transpired. Ted didn’t know it at the time, but it included an inspira tional charge to the surf therapy community that would organically  grow years later. It read: 

“I would like to challenge my fellow surfers to start a new era  by each of us giving a little bit back to the sport that is such  an important part of our lives. I challenge us to progress and  promote surfing as the world’s healthiest sport! … The fact that  my day shared with the children of the Braille Institute received  newspaper and TV coverage made me proud of the image my  sport was projecting to the world. The true essence of surfing  was never more prevalent than on that day when a group of  people got together, shared the innate beauty of the beach and  respect for the ocean and a good time was had by all. If I could  teach only one thing to all surfers, it would be “to give a little  bit back” to surfing.”

Over the next two decades, the surf therapy sector grew organically,  driven by the same qualities that drove Ted Silverberg—a passion to help others in need.  

Read Part 3 of this excerpt: Go Far, Go Together: The Story Behind the International Surf Therapy Organization by clicking here.


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