How One Nonprofit Made Therapy a Day at the Beach

“It’s transformed a lot of people — it opens up their mind, which helps their heart grow.”

A Walk on Water provides kids with special needs transformative experiences in the ocean. Here’s the story of this 26,000th nonprofit to be insured by NIA.

view from inside a wave looking at the coastline and a sunset

A Walk on Water (AWOW) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide children and teens with special and unique needs with the opportunity to experience the therapeutic power of the ocean through guided surf therapy.

Founded in 2012, this Malibu, CA-based nonprofit welcomes children with unique needs — along with their families — to experience a day of relaxing at the beach together, sharing meals together, and celebrating learning a new skill.

At each day-long event, A Walk on Water’s expert surf instructors work with the youth — of all ages and abilities — leading guided surf instruction sessions that allows them to gain familiarity with the ocean, build confidence, and share a feeling of pride and accomplishment as they unlock their inner athlete.

“We just wanted to invite everyone to experience this,” said Steven Lippman, AWOW’s co-founder, creative director, and lead surf therapist. “From children with cystic fibrosis, to Down’s syndrome, to autism, and more.”

The events are intended for the entire family to enjoy, said Ari Markow, AWOW’s director, treasurer, and lead counsel.

“What we try to do is foster an entire day of respite for the whole family,” he explained. “It’s a day of respite at the beach, where they can be themselves, enjoy the beach, watch their child do something that most kids don’t get to do.”

Markow described a typical event, beginning in the morning with a healthy breakfast, followed by surfing activities throughout the day, a communal lunch, and ending with a trophy ceremony.

“Each kid who goes surfing is honored in front of his or her community,” he said.

While the kids are surfing, there are activities for their families, as well — yoga, massage therapy, art therapy, music therapy, food and drinks, and more.

“It really gives everybody a break and an opportunity to enjoy themselves, enjoy their family, enjoy the ocean,” Markow said.

The seeds that became A Walk on Water came when Lippman and some of his fellow competitive surfers worked with other surf therapy organizations, primarily focusing on working on providing surf therapy for children with autism.

They were passionate about the mission, Lippman said, but they believed that a broader example was needed.

“We were helping a lot of nonprofits over the years, and a few of us thought it would be really great if we could do it with our own style and flair,” he said. “We wanted to reach a broader scope of families with unique needs — not just children with autism, but with all types of unique needs.”

Now, 11 years after opening its doors, the organization has grown dramatically.

“We are all over the United States — we have an East Coast chapter and a West Coast chapter,” Lippman said. “We’ve done events in Mexico and we’ve done a few events in the Midwest and Texas.”

The best part, both Lippman and Markow agree, is seeing the profound effect the surf therapy has had on those who take part — both as volunteers and as participants.

“It’s been incredible to see a young generation take hold to something like that and see there’s other people that need help and need love,” said Markow. “It’s transformed a lot of people — it opens up their mind, which helps their heart grow.”

Finding Insurance with NIA

It’s a problem faced by the entire nonprofit sector: Commercial, for-profit insurance providers outright refusing to write coverage for many nonprofit organizations, or not renewing their coverage on a whim.

Unfortunately, that was the ongoing problem for A Walk on Water, as well.

Despite no major incidents and an organizational commitment to safety and training, Markow said, every year or two AWOW would find itself non-renewed and needing to find a new insurer.

“Safety has always been extremely, extremely important to us,” he said. “That being said, every two or three years, we seemed to have gotten our coverage canceled — the risk related to surfing is something that people aren’t interested in writing.”

Finally, after their most recent provider dropped AWOW, they were led to Nonprofits Insurance Alliance, where they were able to secure coverage and are optimistic that it will be the beginning of a long relationship.

“Every two or three years, we’ve been having to explore the market and prove ourselves again,” Markow said. “We’re hoping that this relationship is one that’s going to last for at least a decade.”

A Milestone for NIA

Founded in 1989 as an alternative to for-profit insurance providers for the nonprofit sector, Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA) currently provides liability and property insurance coverage to more than 26,000 501(c)(3) organizations across 32 U.S. states and Washington, DC.

By providing coverage that is both affordable and reliable, along with free and discounted resources to help them thrive, NIA is committed to the long-term success of the nonprofits it insures.

“We are certainly pleased to welcome AWOW and echo their hopes for a long and productive relationship,” said NIA CEO Pamela Davis. “And, there is a very good chance of that, since each year, 95 percent of all NIA-insured nonprofits renew their coverage — and 70% of our members have been with us for at least a decade.”