Surfing program exposes low-income San Francisco students to big waves

- It's a one-of-a-kind class offered at Leadership High School in San Francisco. All you need is a swimsuit, towel and a bit of nerves, but the course isn't taught in the classroom, it's taught at the beach.

It's called the City Surf Project, spearheaded by some Bay Area surfers and designed to give kids from low-income families an opportunity they wouldn't normally receive.

Johnny Irwin is one of the organization's co-founders. Two years ago, the 32-year-old taught social studies at Leadership High School in San Francisco. "The classroom can be pretty chaotic place," he said, "During one of the episodes with a student where we weren't clicking, I thought, 'how can I really reach the students?'"

Irwin thought a field trip to the beach to teach the kids how to surf might help break down some of the barriers that existed inside the classroom. His students loved it and Irwin was hooked.

Irwin grew up surfing Ocean Beach, Pacifica, and Santa Cruz with his father, who is also an avid surfer.

He decided to quit his job as a teacher and create the City Surf Project.

Irwin's vision was to bring surfing to children who normally wouldn't be exposed to it.

Surf lessons, surfboards and wetsuits can be expensive and Irwin didn't want the children to worry about costs.

After securing grant money and donations, he was able to found City Surf, along with his friend, Hunter Chiles, age 34, who works as a paramedic for the San Francisco Fire Department. Chiles is also a die-hard surfer whose dad also taught him how to surf.

Every Wednesday, the two arrive at Leadership High and pick up a dozen students and head to the beach. Since there is actually no physical education class at Leadership High, sophomore Ashley Monterrosa receives school credit for the surfing lessons.

"I always wanted to learn how to surf," she said. Even though Ashley wasn't a strong swimmer, Irwin and Chiles worked with her and got her some swim lessons at a local pool before she hit the waves.

"Everything's so chaotic in the city," she said. "You hear the buses, you hear the sirens, going off and the police and it's like, 'Okay, where can I go to get my own space and just connect with nature and find peace within myself?'"

Monterrosa found it at Linda Mar beach on Wednesday. She and the other students got a perfect day.

Sunny, clear skies with just a bit of wind. They were excited the minute they stepped out of the van, greeted by the roar of the ocean.

"I feel like way freer out here in the ocean, said Tomas Umanzor, "'cause it's like so big and like endless."

"With this program we're trying to break down the boundaries of who you who see out surfing," said Irwin. "We want to get more urban youth out surfing so that they'll know something else rather than their neighborhood. The positivity that's out here, maybe that's going to prevent something later on and maybe that's going to set them on a better path."

Irwin says there aren't too many kids in San Francisco who surf and he wants to change that. Irwin and Chiles give lessons on the beach. "How's it looking out there today?" said Irwin, pointing to the surf. "Do we have a high tide or a low tide right now" The students nod, eager to explain the weather conditions and how to deal with riptides.

City Surf has a volunteer instructor for each student. One of them is Travis Payne, who came in second place at the Mavericks competition recently. Others are lifeguards and paramedics who happen to surf. Irwin and Chiles say the lessons their students learn out on the water can be applied to their everyday lives.

"With surfing you get knocked down," said Irwin. "You gotta persevere you gotta get up ride that next wave out." Umanzor agreed, " That's the kind of rush of surfing you're always like you don't know what's going to happen next."

For Monterrosa, surfing has given her confidence she didn't know she had. "At first I was like I can't do this, I can't do this but now just being able to like surf like, what, 6-foot waves?" she laughed. "It's like, okay, I can do anything!"

Right now, Irwin also runs a surfing program through the wellness centers of the San Francisco Unified School District, mostly at Mission High School. His goal is to some day make the City Surf Project part of the curriculum for all San Francisco public schools.

"If you go to other cities," he said. "There's a surf team, there's a surf class, surfing is done as P.E. and you don't really see that in SF."

With teachers like Irwin and Chiles, it's no wonder the students love surfing. With their sunscreen slathered faces and infectious smiles, their enthusiasm for the sport is catching. We jokingly asked if they teach the kids surfer lingo, too?

"They're learning stoked, they hear a lot of ‘awesomes’ and I've heard one or two 'rads' come out of their mouth!" Irwin chuckles and winks.

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