When Miranda Fuentes was 10, she was having a hard time.
She knew her younger brother had autism, but didn’t know much about his diagnosis or why he acted the way he did. And she didn’t know other kids who were going through anything like she was—until her parents took her to an event for kids with autism at a local surf club.
“That day, my brother Lucas stood up on his first wave. Everyone clapped and cheered,” she remembers. “Everyone there had a similar story. There were siblings like me. Then I didn’t feel so alone. I did not feel embarrassed, but accepted. But most importantly Lucas rode that wave in with a smile and a confidence that we had never seen.”
It was a big moment for both of them. “My life changed that day,” Miranda says. “I have not missed a Surfers for Autism event since.”
In fact, since then, Miranda has become a passionate advocate for Surfers for Autism, an organization that introduces kids with autism to the sport and raises awareness/research funding for people on the spectrum. Now 16, Miranda is the youngest master instructor for the non-profit and works with over 150 kids each year. She has also helped the organization grow—events that used to have 40 volunteers now have 400!
In 2013, Miranda was one of four young people to win one of TeenNick’s HALO Awards (aka the Helping And Leading Others Awards) for her awesome volunteer work. Learn more about her work with SFA, what it was like to hang out with celebs like Pretty Little Liar’s Shay Mitchell and her tips for being an awesome volunteer for an organization you care about!
How has Surfers for Autism helped your brother and family?
Miranda: Lucas was 8 years old at the first SFA event. At that time Lucas barely spoke, had severe sensory issues and behavioral issues. It was difficult to venture out of the home with him. From the first SFA event, we saw Lucas relax at the beach and that helped us all enjoy ourselves and relax a bit, too. After that first event, our family decided to join SFA with their quest to bring events to as many children as possible.
Lucas is now 14, still challenged by Autism, and works hard everyday in school and in therapy. At SFA events, he is at home! He moves thru the day with ease, surfs like a seasoned pro, and has an extended family and friends. We are all involved: my parents, motivated by SFA’s mission, help the organization run the beach events. Even my 9 year old brother Oliver volunteers all over the beach and is an incredible autism advocate!
Who would have ever thought that one-day at the beach could change the direction of our lives so much?!
You’ve been able to motivate a lot of volunteers to join you—what’s your secret for getting other people involved?
Miranda: I can’t stop talking about SFA…I’m a walking billboard! First, I’m always wearing SFA merchandise, when someone asks I tell them all about it. I find that nowadays, with autism in the media, and the rising numbers, people have questions. They show interest.
At SFA events, a good percentage of our volunteers (“vollies”) are teens. When I talk to them after events, they always say that their SFA experience was life-changing. They see that their efforts made a difference! They will go and tell their friends about the experience and hopefully we’ll see them at another event with a couple of extra friends.
Social media plays a big role, and I help the organization by managing the Twitter and Instagram accounts. SFA also has a website and is on Facebook . Leading up to and during the SFA event season, it’s all about letting everyone know what’s going on. This keeps our families and vollies up to date, and shows all our potential new families and vollies what we are up to and where we’re going.
What was it like when you found out you had won a HALO Award?
Miranda: I was crazy surprised! I thought Nickelodeon was filming a piece about my volunteer work with SFA. They are very sneaky! Instead, in the middle of the day at the Naples event where they were filming, pop singer Austin Mahone comes down the beach riding a beach cruiser, hops off the bike and screams, “Miranda Fuentes, this is your HALO hit!”
I was speechless! It was surreal. So many emotions ran through my head, I’m glad they have it on film for me to remember what happened!
What was the best part of the experience?
Miranda: Meeting the three other honorees was definitely the best part of my experience. They were three of the most giving, honest, committed people I ever met, and they are teens!
But, really, it was all so amazing! Nickelodeon treated me like a star from day one. They flew me out to L.A. where I met Shay Mitchell from the show “Pretty Little Liars,” my favorite. I got to spend some time with her at the sound stages, and got to know her and the work she does with the Somaly Mam Foundation to prevent sex trafficking.
For the HALO award show, my whole family came with me to California. What an experience! I felt like I was in a dream. The night of the show, I met some of my favorite celebrities and the funny thing was they all wanted to meet me! I had some time to rub shoulders with them at the HALO VIP party, including, yes, even Nick Cannon and my teen crush, the amazing Austin Mahone.
One thing I learned about being in the spotlight is to just be you. It has helped me to promote volunteerism to a larger audience and in return I have heard from other teens of the positive impact it has had on them.
Teen Nick is donating $10,000 to Surfers for Autism. How will the money will be used?
Miranda: Some of the money was directed to building a new website, which we really needed. It will make it much easier for our volunteers and participants to register and stay informed. The rest of the money will help continue our efforts to keep our events safe, exciting, and free of charge to all our participants and their family.
What would you tell other girls about the secrets to being a great volunteer?
Miranda: I would tell other girls that we could do anything! Whether it is surfing or whatever you put your mind to, girls and women, can do it. Volunteerism knows no gender! When you know in your heart that you can make such a difference, make someone feel confident, make someone overcome a fear, make someone smile for the first time—how can you not be part of it? Remember: There is nothing better than the gift of your time.
To read about other inspiring young women, check out Girls Who Crush It!
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