INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — If organizing a free paddling event to promote autism awareness on just a few weeks’ notice and distributing sensory kits to all Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue vehicles wasn’t proof of the department’s and the city’s dedication to the cause, the colorfully wrapped fire truck sealed the deal. 

As dozens of kids and their families made the walk from the 17th Avenue beach access parking lot out to the sand for the inaugural Paddling for Autism on July 16, they saw Engine No. 27 sporting multi-colored tiles and ribbons signifying autism support. It was a sign of the commitment of Fire Chief Jeffrey Davidson, Mayor Cookie Kennedy and other officials to the mission of ensuring that kids with autism and other neurodivergent disorders are included in city events.

Prior to the 9 a.m. start, Davidson explained how he decided to organize the event, which featured food, games, paddle lessons and other activities, after Kennedy presented a proclamation to 10-year-old resident Zachary Hargett and his family during an April city commission meeting.

“It came about after speaking with (Zachary’s mom) Mishelle at the City Commission meeting and I realized they didn’t have any events here dedicated to promoting autism awareness,” said the chief, who previously hosted similar events at other departments. “So, we worked with the city and our sponsors to put this together, and I think it’s a great turnout, especially for an inaugural event.”

Davidson said he wanted to keep it small for several reasons, including reducing noise and making sure they had enough volunteers to handle the turnout, and the two-dozen open spots quickly filled up. Those who did attend were treated to hours of fun in and out of the water, an accomplishment some family members didn’t think was possible.

“She’s not a fan of the water, usually. She’s got a lot of sensory issues,” Patricia Previtera Lester of Seminole said of her daughter, Grace, who wound up taking three paddle excursions into the warm Gulf of Mexico waters. “We signed up for this yesterday and I’m so glad we did, because there aren’t very many opportunities like this around here, especially after COVID. Just seeing her enjoying the water and the smile on her face has been amazing.”

Mishelle Hargett agreed.

“At one point, we were in the water just observing everyone, and our hearts were so happy,” she said by email a day later. “Watching some of the participants in the water smiling and laughing and knowing that they would not have that opportunity without an event like this was just amazing. Seeing the parents smiling and waving to their children up and down the beach brought tears to our eyes. It was simply amazing, and our hearts are so full, we are so appreciative of everyone who took the time to make this event so wonderful. It was AU-SOME with an ‘AU’, and we cannot wait for the next one!”

Davidson spent the day paddling between groups in the water and helping onshore, where food and merchandise tents were set up courtesy of several local businesses. He said they plan to host another paddle event in early November “and hopefully three or four next year.”

Kennedy thanked the fire chief for organizing such a unique and important event.

“I think it’s awesome because we have our own community of autistic kids and we need to have events that are designed for them,” Kennedy said before hopping in a kayak to join the Hargetts on the water.