North Carolina’s Indo Jax Surf Charities Helps Kids With Batten Disease, Other Special Needs

A small North Carolina nonprofit organization, Indo Jax Surf Charities, has recently gained attention for its set of free programs to help children with Batten disease and other special needs build self-esteem.

Since launching these programs, Indo Jax has been featured in several media platforms, including American Way Magazine and TEDx Talks. Its founder is Jack Viorel, who started the group when he was a first-grade teacher at Saint Mary’s Elementary School in Wilmington, N.C.

“The school provided a program for kids born with AIDS,” Viorel said in a press release. “I thought about taking them surfing, believing this would be good for their self-esteem and physical issues. The program coordinator talked me into running three camps that summer.”

Beore the surf camp, many of these AIDS-stricken children had stopped taking their medication, knowing that they were dying, said Viorel.

“By the end of the summer, I knew we were on to something big,” he said. “The children started to open up, their skin issues improved, many of them went back on their medication, they wanted to surf again and be healthy enough to do it, and started talking about future plans.”

Sensing this could be a great success, Viorel retired from his 20-year teaching career and spent the next decade honing and expanding his charity for children with special needs. Today, Indo Jax Surf Charities uses the ocean as a classroom and surfing as a learning tool.

“We believe the ocean has unique healing properties with an ever-changing, unpredictable environment,” Viorel said. “Getting into the ocean and learning to surf, especially special-needs children, is a life-long lesson about stepping out of your comfort zone into unpredictability, and removing limitations. Everything in life has a bit of fear. We teach the kids that it’s okay to be afraid.”

Indo Jax now works in North Carolina, California, Nicaragua and India and different surf camps have specially designed programs for children with autism, visual impairment, certain cancers and neuromuscular diseases, among others.

“Our programs build higher self-confidence and teach a system children can apply to any situation or hurdle in the future,” he added. “They leave with a formula to be more successful, conquer more challenges, and the ability to deal with fear.”

The plan for 2017 is to assist about 1,000 children free of charge, using financial help from individuals as well as corporate donors and sponsors.

“We take on the responsibility of raising the money,” Viorel explained. “Most families with medically fragile, special needs or at-risk children are struggling to make ends meet.”

“I encourage anybody thinking about it to go for it,” said Eric Stanley, the father of 11-year old Jaylen, who is battling juvenile Batten disease. “Jack and his team are great. They’re very patient and know how to work with kids. A parent does not have to worry – they are one-on-one with the children, working with them and watching all the time.”

Batten disease may cause progressive visual impairment, seizures, muscle spasms, difficult sleep, speech and language decline and the general deterioration of fine and gross motor skills, which result in the overall loss of mobility. Ultimately, the child may become totally dependent on families.

Because there’s no cure for Batten disease yet, specialist symptom management and holistic therapy is essential to maintaining a good quality of life. Activities like surfing, which let kids interact with the environment, be in contact with water and have fun, may help increase strength and physical fitness as well as provide much-needed time for social interaction.

Indo Jax will also be the subject of a one-hour TV special, “The Hero Effect,” to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network. A premiere showing will take place Aug. 10 in Wrightsville Beach at Blockade Runner Beach Resort, one of the project’s main sponsors.

By Carolina Henriques

Treehouse Foundation

18 years ago I became a foster parent after reading a heartbreaking newspaper article about a 5-month-old baby who was kidnapped from his crib in foster care. The article was a catalyst for my family to step up to the plate and support our foster care system. My husband and I enrolled in foster parent training classes and were delighted when two beautiful little sisters were placed in our home.

I knew very little about our foster care system. I had one foot in the “Land of Opportunity” where my children by birth grew up, and where they received all of the resources they needed to live healthy, connected and fulfilling lives. My other foot was planted firmly in the “Land of Child Welfare” where resources are scarce, and every year nearly 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care and are at risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting and lives of poverty.

As a former teacher, I believe in the promise we make to children when we remove them from their homes: to provide them with safety, and to find them a permanent loving connection if they cannot be returned to their first family. Additionally, I realized they needed passionate advocates to fight on their behalf and ensure they have everything they need to live productive and fulfilling lives.

In 2002, I established a vibrant nonprofit organization called the Treehouse Foundation. My goal: To move children out of foster care into permanent, loving families and communities that invest in their hopes, dreams, lives and futures.

The Treehouse community is a 60-home village located in Easthampton, MA, in the heart of the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. Our intergenerational approach supports families adopting children from foster care and their neighbors, older Americans (55+), who act as “honorary grandparents.”

Treehouse is a special place where all generations thrive. In our first decade, we have accomplished many milestones. Families are strong. Kids are growing up surrounded by people who love them. They are graduating from high schools, colleges and vocational programs to pursue their dreams. Elders are imparting their knowledge to the next generation and actively investing in foster care innovation.

This year, as we celebrate our 11th anniversary, the Treehouse team is preparing to share our model with states all over the U.S. Plans are in place to build two more Treehouse communities in California and Massachusetts that will benefit upwards of 250 people.

I’m thrilled that America will soon meet the wonderful children and youth, families and elders living at Treehouse when our community is featured on “The Hero Effect,” a docu-series presented by United Way that airs on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. I encourage you to tune in on May 13 at 10:00 am EDT to learn how you can get involved in the Treehouse Foundation or support youth in foster care in your community.

Press Release: United Way of Forsyth County Supported Programs Provide Critical Help to At-Risk Youth

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Approximately 265 Forsyth County troubled teens this year are getting a second chance to graduate high school after committing a juvenile offense, thanks to United Way of Forsyth County (UWFC) supported programs similar to a Dallas United Way program that will be featured on an Oprah Winfrey Network Docu-Series episode of “The Hero Effect,” airing on Dec. 10 at 10:30 a.m.
The UWFC supported “Work & Earn It “program is for teens who have committed offenses that could lead to incarceration.  At-risk teens are referred to the program by juvenile court counselors in order to pay restitution or perform community service.  The target population is youth ages 9 and 17 who are on probation or have been diverted from Juvenile Court. Local non-profits and governmental agencies collaborate by providing locations for the participants to perform their community service.  The youth not only compensate their victims, but also learn valuable vocational skills. 
The UWFC supported “Teen Court” program gives juvenile offenders the opportunity to perform community service and give back to their community. The program’s target population is youth between the ages nine and 15 who are first-time offenders or those who have been diverted from Juvenile Court.  The youth are required to serve on teen court, which also provides life skills lessons designed to help the teens make better choices and become accountable for their actions. Local attorneys and judges serve as judges and all proceedings are held in the Hall of Justice where actual court cases are heard.
A new inspirational docu-series, The Hero Effect, to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Dec. 10 at 10:30 a.m., features an episode highlighting a United Way-supported restaurant and culinary training facility in Dallas that provides a positive environment for teens recently released from juvenile detention.
“United Way of Forsyth County is dedicated to supporting at-risk youth throughout the County,” said Cindy Smith Gordineer, UWFC president and CEO. “By shining a spotlight on “Café Momentum,” The Hero Effect is underscoring the important work that is needed to help young people across our country gain the education, skills and confidence they need to succeed as adults.”
The Hero Effect brings to life the stories of ordinary individuals who are making extraordinary differences in their communities.  The ten-episode original series brings audiences real-life stories that build on United Way’s credo to fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community
Presented by United Way, produced by Dolphin Entertainment and hosted by Donald Driver, a former Wide Receiver for the Green Bay Packers and Emily Wilson, a philanthropist and actress, each episode of The Hero Effect concludes with a call to action, encouraging viewers to visit and connect with their local United Way or other community-based organizations to create positive change.
# # #