Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kids with disabilities become seafarers in Florida sailing program

From the Northwest Florida Daily News. In the picture, George Saidah, right, takes in the view of East Pass on Wednesday as 6-year-old Steven Myatt steers a sailboat under the Marler Bridge.

DESTIN, Fla. — Six-year-old Steven Myatt’s captain’s hat hid his eyes as he looked up while steering the sailboat around the harbor.

Steven’s autism normally causes him to fidget, scream, leave his mother’s side and sometimes take off his clothes. But he sat calmly on the boat Wednesday. He took directions from the captain and sat beside his shell-shocked mother.

George Saidah has been taking special needs children on his boat since 2004. His nonprofit organization, Heart of Sailing, tries to bring “the wonder of the seafaring world to children with disabilities,” according to a new release from the group.

To see photos from the sailing trip, click here.

Eight families from the Emerald Coast Autism Society signed up for hour-long sails Wednesday.

Steven’s mother, Tina Myatt of Crestview, looked anxious as she watched her smallest child board the vessel after his 10-year-old sister, Jennifer.

“My husband told me he was going to watch the news to see if we go overboard,” she said jokingly.

Her fears of a rowdy child were unfounded. Steven quietly put on his yellow life jacket as he sat next to Saidah, or Capt. George. He wore his captain’s hat proudly as the wind blew across the boat.

“You look surprised,” Saidah said to Myatt as she watched her son with wonder.

“I know,” she replied. “He normally screams and yells and runs away. We never go to restaurants or anything. We never go anywhere.”

Saidah has traveled across America with 48 programs that help teach special needs children to sail. They do everything from steering the boat to helping with the gear.

“It’s relaxing for everyone,” he said. “In public they act one way and the parents are stressed. Here, kids can’t go that far. They relax and the tension is gone.”

Myra Fowler, president of Emerald Coast Autism Society, said that taking autistic children sailing is therapeutic.

“They’re treated normal and they’re doing something they can do,” she said. “It’s a special experience they couldn’t imagine doing, something they probably would never have the opportunity to do.”

Steven’s blond hair blew from under his hat as he pointed toward HarborWalk Village as the boat came back to dock. A smile spread ever so slightly across his face as he looked out at the gulf in a slight mist.

“It was fun,” Tina said, shock still in her voice. “It wasn’t so horrible.”

Tina then ran after her screaming son after the boat docked, shouting of being ready to go home as Steven yanked on the Heart of Sailing medal he just received.