ST. PETE BEACH – For one day in July, the beach at Pass-A-Grille will be ground zero for families of children with autism.
Surfers For Autism, a South Florida-based group that has been around since 2008, plans a gathering Saturday, July 12 of about 200 autistic children and their families for the purpose of introducing the children to the world of surfing.
St. Pete Beach Commissioners voted unanimously June 10 to approve the event after plans for the group’s fourth annual Tampa Bay event fell through in Treasure Island.
The Pass-A-Grille event will draw families of autistic children from across the Tampa Bay area, as well as six states. They will be based at the Holiday Inn Harbourside in Indian Rocks Beach for the weekend and transported the 9.3-mile distance to Pass-A-Grille.
“We’re doing this now 14 times annually, starting in Australia and we end in Puerto Rico,” said Don Ryan, president and COO of the foundation that supports SFA. “This is a grand scale and world class event. It’s not for just a few hundred. It’s for a few thousand people. We are going to be representing six states at this particular event.”
Throughout the day, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., volunteers and trained water sports specialists will take groups of autistic children into the water at 30-minute intervals. For most, it will be their first such experience. The purpose, according to the SFA website, is to unlock the potential of people with developmental delays, support advocacy for autism and autism research, and eliminate stigma through public awareness and community volunteerism.
“I think it’s very exciting that you’re bringing this to our area,” said City Commissioner Melinda Pletcher. “I’m a little concerned about the magnitude of it but I love the organization and love what you’re doing. It’s pretty special.”
Commissioner Rick Falkenstein echoed her remarks.
“I’m really excited for the children and the moms and dads, just to see their children interact with other children,” he said.
Commissioner Terri Finnerty expressed concern about enough trash receptacles on the beach to handle the onslaught of people but was assured by Ryan that it would be addressed at no cost to the city.
“I’ll work on that but I promise you guys. Don’t even think about things like that,” Ryan said. “We have our own roadies who do this. We have our own vans and drivers to move everything. We just need a place to drop it.”
Plans call for a free lunch for about 1,200 and plenty of water to keep everyone hydrated. Ryan said about 1,000 pounds of ice would be delivered to the site and two pallets of bottled water. He promised his group would take care of recycling all plastic bottles.
“We’re still working on parking,” he said.
Surfers For Autism are picking up all costs associated with the event. Ryan promised there would be no cost to the city.
Interim City Manager Elaine Edmunds said Gulf Way would be closed for the day from Eighth to 10th avenues, along with Ninth and 10th avenues, from Gulf Way to Pass-A-Grille Way.
Ryan further explained that he is looking for a long-term “partnership” with St. Pete Beach to host the event each year.
“Our foundation requires personal relationships with our communities that will host us,” he said. “We don’t come to communities asking for a piece of paper or permission. It’s about developing partnerships because this is something incredibly special.”
St. Pete Beach resident JoAnn Lentino questioned the partnership concept and wondered what the city would be giving up, in addition to its beach for a day.
“One of my questions is why this organization’s host hotel is way up the beach and why didn’t we get some of that business to our local hotels here,” Lentino asked. “If we’re doing a partnership, it would be nice if there was something coming for our community.”
Ryan said he is working on that aspect for next year.
Lentino also suggested the city increase its current $1 million insurance requirement and wondered if the city would have hidden law enforcement and safety cost.
“Will we be incurring any additional expense for overtime of fire, safety and police?” Lentino asked. “Do we need to increase our staff at this time to make this a sure, safe event?”
Mayor Maria Lowe explained that the event size determines what the police requirements are, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
“That is calculated and they are charged a fee based on that,” Lowe said.