A few hours in the warm Carolina Beach waters with a new friend, though, made a big difference.
“She’s been talking up a storm,” Walsh said. “She asked for her boogie board, something she didn’t even know existed (before the family trip to the beach).”
It was “a chance meeting” that kicked off what Walsh, 38, hopes will be a lifelong transformation for her daughter.
“I saw a woman with a shirt that said ‘Surf Instructor’ and asked if she would work with my daughter. She didn’t say anything about the possible liability of working with a 5-year-old autistic child who can’t swim. She said, ‘Let me ask my brother ’cause he’s kind of a strong swimmer.’”
The woman Walsh was talking to was 26-year-old Ashley Silvagni, and her brother – the “kind of strong swimmer” – is world champion surfer Tony Silvagni.
For the better part of the next six hours, Walsh said, Silvagni played on a surfboard with Koi. She fell several times but always got up and tried again. “Koi just came out of her shell. She was really proud. My daughter is so changed now. It was a profound experience.”
“Profound” for mother and daughter, apparently.
“I didn’t know he was such a big deal until I got home and looked him up on the Internet,” Walsh said. “I was just really blown away by his kind gesture. He basically dropped everything. … He was selling T-shirts and they started blowing away. He said ‘I guess I should go after them.’ ” When he did, Walsh said, “Koi ran after him. She never runs after anybody.”
I asked Silvagni what it was about Koi that made him spend so much time with her.
“Just seeing the smile on her face after every wave she caught. We didn’t have communications, but I could just tell it was the most enjoyable thing she’s ever done in her life.”
Silvagni makes his living running the Tony Silvagni Surf School at Carolina Beach, which may be why Walsh sounded so incredulous when she said he wouldn’t take a dime. “My mom kept trying to give him money, but he wouldn’t take it. I think she finally stuffed some in his backpack.
“It was really a surreal moment as a parent to see your child do something you didn’t think they could do. He’s 24. He’s a kid, but he was able to connect with her in a way no therapist ever has.
“He said, ‘You can call me anytime. I’d do anything for this child.’ ” What he’s already done for her, she said, “was such a wonderful thing.”
What he did for Koi’s mom was pretty nice, too.