Inner-City Surfers and Sailors
Many children of inner-city Los Angeles and other underprivileged communities in our Golden State will never know a life with a relationship to the sea. Even though many live a short car ride from the shores of the great Pacific Ocean: teeming with life and lessons. This reality necessitates this story and the task to find forward-looking Southern Californian organizations that devote themselves to providing underprivileged children in the foster care system and in Black and Brown communities an opportunity to get to know and maybe even come to love the ocean. As Marion Setterholm Clark, the daughter of Mary Setterholm—founder of Surf Academy and later, in 2003, Surf Bus—stated: "We really want to teach inner-city children surfing. Although more than anything, if you're an Angeleno, it's your birthright to have a relationship with the water."
The Surf Bus Foundation, a nonprofit organization, born out of the Surf Academy, was founded in 2000 by Mary Setterholm in the aftermath of a tragedy in the ocean off of the Manhattan Beach Pier. Setterholm witnessed the drowning of a young girl from the inner-city in 1998 at Manhattan Beach Pier and resolved that she would do her part to teach children how to enjoy the ocean safely. She opened Surf Academy as a business and taught kids how to swim and deepen their relationships with the ocean, though she had something more on her mind.
By 2003 she created the Surf Bus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting Black and Brown inner-city children into the ocean. Today it is operated by her daughter, Surf Bus Foundation President Marion Setterholm Clark. However, it's still run with her mother's original spirit and idea. Which was a simple concept, explained to me by Clark with a question: "How do you make a connection in LA communities you're not a part of?" The answer was simple enough: you get the word out to kids and parents, then send a bus to pick them up in their neighborhoods, at their parks, churches, and recreational centers. It's an idea that's still working today.
Clark also understands that for inner-city children who have no experience with the water, the best place to learn would be a swimming pool, but as she lamented: "Access to pools are very limited. Where else do you learn?" And she's right. According to laparks.org, out of Los Angeles' 39 public pools, only 16 are open year-round, and those service thousands.
Clark mentioned: "The idea of letting a kid go by a parent, especially if they can't swim, is concerning." So she took the time to explain:" Most of the young kids are in waist-deep water…We take the opportunity to teach them how to swim and tread water, of course, but we also teach them how to spot a rip current and other dangers, how to use their own instincts in the water, like dog-paddling, which isn't very technical, but can save your life."
Clark made it clear that they love introducing the kids to swimming, surfing, and other water skills and therapies that can benefit the children for a lifetime. However, her primary objective is "The kids become ocean literate." If you think this would be good for your child, contact the Surf Bus Foundation at surfbusfoundation.org.
San Diego's Urban Surf 4 Kids (US4K) is another organization dedicated to introducing surfing to inner-city kids. Led by Roxanne Peña Avant, who took the helm as the first paid, full-time employee and Latina Executive Director in 2019. The kids participating in US4K are usually from the foster care system or transitioning from homelessness.
The face of America is changing, it is browning, and traditionally white institutions and sports are starting to reflect this fact. There is a stereotypical image we have of the surfer and boater in America's collective consciousness, though with the help of organizations like these, we can shatter that image. While at the same time, give our Black and Brown children a chance to enjoy the ocean and ocean sports like any other Southern Californian.