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Guest commentary: This surfing program is changing young lives wave by wave

Area children learn to surf through the mentorship program ReSurf.
(Jared Weintraub / Courtesy of Kayla Swartzberg)

Here in sunny San Diego, surfing is the name of the game for many. You’ve seen the surfers running into the water and riding each wave as it ebbs and flows.

There’s a beauty to surfing, no doubt: It’s healthy and fun and freeing. It takes patience, power, perseverance. Perhaps that’s why people fall in love with it, why they are transformed by it.

But it’s pay to play. Many people can’t afford the equipment, training sessions and travel to the beach, limiting their access to the sport.

But ReSurf is changing the game.

ReSurf is a mentorship program that teaches surfing to inner-city youths. Since 2017, ReSurf has partnered with the San Diego Unified School District’s Logan Memorial Educational Campus to provide students with surfing lessons, wetsuits and surfboards. This is possible with the help of Surf Diva Shop & Surf School in La Jolla Shores and volunteers from the Youth Action Movement, a nonprofit Jewish teen community organization.

Rosie Vazquez, the school counselor at Logan, says ReSurf has been “extremely powerful” for her students. “These kids are at risk of not completing their education; they are in a bad element,” she said. “[Because of ReSurf], I’ve noticed an increase in grades and a decrease in behavioral issues.

“I can see the transformation.”

By learning how to surf, the students gain confidence and, as Vazquez notes, are “looking forward to the next go-around” of ReSurf. “It’s rewarding for me to see,” she said.

For Rabbi Zevi New, chief executive of the Youth Action Movement, the reward is in the kindness. “ReSurf creates a sustainable kindness that is the core of tikkun olam,” he said. Tikkun olam is a Jewish value that translates to “repairing the world.”

“It’s less about seeing the world as problematic and more about seeing yourself as the solution,” New said.

As a leader in tikkun olam efforts, New has been instrumental in the West Coast creation of ReSurf. Inspired by ReSurf in New York, he introduced the program’s concept to the teenagers at YAM.

He asked them, “How did you feel when you caught your first wave?” They smiled, basking in the nostalgia, New said. He then encouraged them to give others that same experience and joy.

From there, it was smooth sailing.

“These teen volunteer surfers had no idea that surfing could be something you could pay forward until they got introduced to ReSurf,” New said.

One teen, David Feldman, found much meaning in the experience. “I’m really grateful to have been able to give [the students] what I love to do most,” he said. “Surfing has changed my life, and I’m hoping it can be a new life-changing asset for them.”

Vazquez said she watches her students become more empowered from the realization of “Whoa, I can do this.”

Having that sense of accomplishment is impactful. As for having fun?

“You should see the pictures. They love it,” Vazquez said.

Participants in ReSurf take to the waves at La Jolla Shores.
(Jared Weintraub / Courtesy of Kayla Swartzberg)

The love is on both ends. Julian Davis, a lead teen volunteer for ReSurf and a YAM alumnus, said “ReSurf was one of my first forays into community service and I found that I enjoyed spending my time working on something that would benefit other people.”

Since then, Davis has been passionate about the environment and climate change.

Yet ReSurf isn’t just an initiative for surfers. Many ReSurf volunteers are photographers, videographers and artists who help decorate the surfboards that are eventually given to the students.

“There’s one student who was learning remotely the entire year,” New said. “She was struggling with isolation. Once she heard about ReSurf through [Vazquez], right away she said, ‘Mom, I’m going surfing.’ She was the one who was pushing the instructor — she wanted bigger waves! We gifted her a board and now she is well on her way to building on those skills.”

This is the essence of sustainable kindness. People with passion shape passionate people. Goodness breeds goodness.

“It’s about resilience,” New said. "[The students] are learning that whatever situation they are in, it’s to their benefit so long as they see it as one.”

There’s a reason the inside of a surfboard is foam. It’s for buoyancy, it keeps you afloat. It helps you ride every wave that comes your way.

“My students always come up to me asking, ‘Ms. Vazquez, Ms. Vazquez, when are we going to surf?” Vazquez said. “And the parents can’t thank me enough.”

Cowabunga!

Do you want to be part of the ReSurf program? You can sponsor a child for the 2021-22 surf season for $500 ($100 for each session), or volunteer as a surfer, videographer, photographer, artist and more.

Email Rabbi Zevi New at rabbi@youthactionmovement.com.

— Kayla Swartzberg is an aspiring writer and journalist who is attending UC San Diego in La Jolla this fall.