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Hidden Gems: Meet Jillian Stewart of Surf and Turf Therapy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jillian Stewart.

Hi Jillian, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
At nine years old, I started volunteering my horse to be used by children with disabilities at local 4-H shows during our lunch breaks. Over the next 20 years, I spent time as a special needs 4-H leader and a volunteer at various therapeutic centers. Along the way, I also learned how to surf and began to see a lot of parallels between sitting astride a horse and sitting astride a surfboard, which lead me to think about how to incorporate surf into treatment sessions.

Surf and Turf Therapy was founded from a passion and enormous desire to fill a niche with which humanity seemed to be overlooking. As a pediatric physical therapist, I saw a need for community integration and inclusion, as well as opportunities for individuals with disabilities to experience a wider range of activities, which lead me to start the nonprofit in 2018.

The organization started with the mission to “better lives through nontraditional therapeutic activities” and the original team was myself and a few foam surfboards I picked up second hand. I had two kiddos ready to try surfing – one with Angelman’s Syndrome who loved water so much he thought drowning me sounded like the best plan ever, and a sassy little girl with down syndrome who was so stoked when she was gliding down the face of a wave, that she would let the entire line-up know her disappointment any time we missed a wave. After only one day in the water, I observed less seizure activity and heard more language from the two patients. It was clear the potential surfing had to help improve the lives of these kids, as well as the lives of countless others.

Lucky for me, the smiles and positivity that come from my patients during therapy sessions is infectious, which lead to a lot of recognition and new patients signing up quicker than I ever expected. Word also spread of my background in Hippotherapy or using the horse as a tool in therapy, and so my personal horse, Biscuit, was my first member of the team. I always say it was supposed to be my weekend “passion project” but after less than a year of working three part-time jobs while voluntarily trying to keep up with the word of mouth referrals for S&T, I had to take the plunge and go for it full time.

I had studied kinesiology for undergrad before receiving my Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Northwestern in 2014 and my Hippotherapy Clinical Specialty in 2017. I had never studied business, let alone how to start and run a successful nonprofit, but I found myself doing just that. I was without a business plan and without funding outside of my small personal life savings, but with a growing demand for the services, I was providing to my community. In two short years, I have learned how to apply for 501(c)3 status, make a website, how to use a CRM, how to fill out 100’s of pages of government forms to gain and maintain nonprofit status, how to throw fundraising events, how to manage a team that has grown to four therapists, two support staff and over 250 volunteers (as well as seven horses), how to manage bookkeeping and budget for growth and sustainability, how to make templates for intake forms and donation receipts, and the list goes on.

Now I am learning how to best share my knowledge and develop the practices for Surf and Turf that will hopefully last beyond my lifetime and become my legacy. My board and volunteers, which is a predominantly female group, are rising to the occasion and helping to make sure this once dream remains a reality. I am focusing on how I can develop a team and share my load while keeping our high standard of care as we can continue to grow – so I can learn another skill, balanced life as an Executive Director.

I truly love my work, being the head of this non-profit in its infancy and understanding every single piece that goes into the puzzle has been the accomplishment of my life. In our first two years, we were recognized in the New York Times and by E! News, we gained our own treatment space, provided weekly experiences and memories to more than 65 unique families, shared our story on numerous podcasts, experienced nearly exponential growth and are known across the globe for our work in the surf therapy sector, all while remaining a small-budget nonprofit staying true to our roots and values. This summer, we are set to help over 80 people each week between both our turf and surf programs!

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
The road is certainly filled with highs and lows. There are days when I think I can do anything I set my mind to and days when I think I have no business doing anything that I am. Learning new skills on a nearly daily basis to run this business was rewarding but also incredibly draining. Additionally, with growth, there will be growing pains and currently, we are struggling to keep up with demand without enough staff or funding. It is incredibly difficult to manage over 400 hours a week of scheduling between patients, therapists, volunteers and horses, while also treating patients, fundraising and running all of the behind the scenes business components.

We’ve been impressed with Surf and Turf Therapy, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Surf and turf therapy provides physical, occupational and speech therapy services targeting traditional, functional goals using non-traditional approaches, including surfing, horseback riding and community-based activities. These unique approaches offer unparalleled opportunities to address deficits in strength, stability, body awareness, coordination, safety awareness, tone management, flexibility, attention and sensory integration. The focus of treatment is to improve daily life skills, such as walking, postural alignment, talking, and writing, rather than simply teaching individuals how to surf or ride.

Family and friends are invited to join in treatment sessions, with therapy emphasizing functional, fun, and inclusion-based treatment approaches. We offer financial aid to those in need, covering up to 100% of medical treatments to ensure no one is turned away due to inability to pay.

The part of our brand I am most proud of is the community. We have such a wonderful community that just keeps growing, and I think it is truly a testament to our mission and values to have so many amazing individuals supporting our work.

Do you have recommendations for books, apps, blogs, etc?
I have to admit – I keep telling myself I will make more time for myself including reading and listening to podcasts, but I do not currently have anything that I am listening to or reading regularly. I was interviewed for the Brain Possible podcast and really enjoyed being interviewed by her and listened to some of her other interviews.

Contact Info:


Image Credits:

Alexander Gilmaker-Isawa – personal photo Sam Ellision Photography – little boy on white horse with people laughing Lucian McAfee – 2 adults on yellow surfboard

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