Whitewater Healing helps kids with autism brave new waters

Put a bunch of kids with autism and their families in rubber rafts and shoot them through the Nantahala Gorge with guides who know nothing about autism. That’s the basic idea put forth by Canadian whitewater canoe legend and global swiftwater rescue guru Jim Coffey to a couple of self-described dirtbag boaters from Chattanooga. 

Together, they created Whitewater Healing, which, in its first year of existence won Canoe & Kayak Magazine’s 2016 “Paddle With Purpose” Award. 

“We decided that we could use our talents and our connections in the whitewater world to present the magic of whitewater to people who are challenged with autism,” said Coffey.

Coffey teamed up with Endless River Adventures, based on the Nantahala River in Western North Carolina, which quickly committed to provide necessary boats, gear, and logistic support. 

Meanwhile, elite paddler Shawn “Animal” Malone organized a team of volunteer ambassadors consisting of the Southeast’s premier whitewater boaters, including Matthew Thomas, Eli Helbert, Jennifer Taylor, and Jerrod Jones. All of them volunteer their time, money, and talents to provide whitewater excitement to a group of people who might never get that exposure without them. “All guides come away enriched,” said Malone.

“Personally, Whitewater Healing opened my eyes to challenges that some families face.”

“I’ll be walking with this stoke for a long time,” added elite paddler and Whitewater Healing volunteer Nathan Cline after this year’s event.

12-year-old Will Brittain, of York, S.C., has developed a very special relationship with paddler Shawn Malone over four years of paddling together on the Nantahala. 

“Often people don’t know how to engage a child with autism, especially one who doesn’t talk,” says Will’s father, Bill. “But with Shawn, the communication and understanding just seemed to come naturally and from his heart. Will reads people very well and he knows Shawn is someone he can trust and be himself with.” 

14-year-old twins Daniel and Darren Pernell, along with their 16-year-old sister Olivia, were first timers at Whitewater Healing WNC 2018 and vow to return next year.  

“It was a super chill event, very similar to Surfer’s Healing,”  said Marty Pernell, their father. “The boys’ disabilities can be very isolating for the entire family. An event like this, for the entire family is priceless.”

My own son Tuck has had similar experiences with Whitewater Healing. In 2016, he and other paddlers were offered the opportunity to leap off a large boulder into the frigid Nantahala River. Already Tuck was cold, wet, hungry, tired after a long day on the river, and now he was afraid, too. For many people with autism, moving forward under these conditions is impossible. I knew how badly he wanted to join the others in this adventure, but it had to be his decision, not mine. 

He did it. Afterwards, I asked him why. Tuck said, “Sometimes the fear won’t go away, so you have to do it afraid.”