As a father of two, surfer Mark Hanley was deeply affected by the death of Ocean Beach local Dirk Denny, who left two young children behind after losing his life in the surf north of San Francisco in 2010.

"When I heard about it, all I could think about was how his children's lives were changed in an instant and I thought about my own kids," Hanley says. "We all have known families that have lost a parent and we’ve seen, in many cases, how the kids head off on very different paths compared to where they would have gone if their family was still intact."

With the Fallen Watermen's Foundation, Hanley–an OB local, veteran of the action sports industry, and former VP of Sales for Vans–channeled that grief into an initiative aimed at supporting the children of lamented watermen and women. FWF just recently awarded its first round of college grants to three worthy recipients. We caught up with Hanley to learn more about the organization and its initiatives.

The Denny family. The late Dirk Denny’s daughters have been able to fund their college educations through grants given by the Fallen Waterman’s Foundation.

So it sounds as though learning of the death of Dirk Denny was a mobilizing moment for you. Did you know of other families at the time who’d lost parents to water-based tragedies? Did you find that the children of these folks were struggling?

A key point that needs to be made is that the Fallen Waterman’s Foundation is not only there for fallen watermen and women that have died in the water pursuing their passions. It is open to families whose parent has demonstrated their love for the ocean through surfing, diving, kiteboarding or stand up paddling and may have died prematurely from cancer or an accident. This is not to say that our fallen icons like Andy Irons, Sion and others would not be included as well. They are the ones we know about and usually get some support from the companies that sponsored them. The FWF’s mission is to also help the everyday waterman or woman that figured out a way to make the ocean part of their lives.

As you looked closely at the trauma and struggles of those who’d lost loved ones that were considered waterman in their communities, what was something that surprised you or helped crystalize the need for something like FWF?

All this started in 2010 and I was working for Vans. I asked Doug Palladini, who was President of SIMA at the time, if his organization supported any entities that were focused on helping the children of fallen watermen and women. His answer was, “Sadly, there is not.” With that, I started digging into what it took to start a 501(C)3 foundation. I quickly found out I couldn’t do it on my own dime and that’s when friends started offering their help. A good example was when a former high school teammate, Fram Virjee, said he would use his association with O’Melveny and Myers Law Firm in Los Angeles to help me attain our 501(C)3 status. They ended up handling the entire process including the application fees pro bono. Dave Parmley of Kustom Kult, a design firm out of Portland, offered to design our new logo.  Marcos Mafia of Mafia Bags and his sister Paz, designed our website and got it up and running. Marcos is a former professional Kiteboarder and they make backpacks and bags out of recycled sails. We couldn't have pulled this off without everyone's help.

Is providing scholarships the main initiative of FWF? How do you go about raising funds and awareness for this mission?

Initially, providing scholarships to the children of fallen watermen and women was our sole mission and focus. What we quickly came to realize is that many of these kids need some counseling before they are even ready to consider going off to college. This came to light after a surf session at Fort Cronkhite when I was introduced to a young woman whose Dad had died a few years earlier and was one of the locals there. I told her she would be a perfect candidate for an FWF grant so she could go to college. When I mentioned it, she quickly looked down to the ground and said in a soft voice that she didn’t think she was ready for college yet. Since then we’ve reached out to counselors in our various surf communities and they’ve offered to help our FWF kids free of charge. 

In regard to raising funds. Donations are appreciated and can be done through our secure website. However, nobody wants to ask their friends for money so we have pursued a couple other avenues. The first is to identify individual FWF Ambassadors in the different surf communities up and down the coast. We all know that there is a different crowd at Huntington Beach Pier than there is at 56th Street in Newport Beach. The key has been to find those ambassadors that are influential at their local breaks. They can then reach out to their friends from a position of credibility that one doesn’t have coming from the outside. Their main mission is to build awareness and support for the FWF. They are also tasked with identifying potential candidates for our FWF grants. People ask, “How do you know if somebody is a waterman?” Our response is pretty simple. If they’ve had a paddle out ceremony, that’s a pretty good indication they were a true waterman.

Our second fund raising vehicle has been to find ongoing sources of revenue. Jon Berger, our FWF Ambassador for Huntington Beach, is a good example of this. He shapes boards on the side under his “Bald Jonny’s Longboards” label. Jon glasses the FWF logo onto every board he shapes and then donates $50 dollars per board to the FWF. Imagine if we were able to get Channel Islands, Rusty or Firewire to do this! We’ve also been working with an Italian startup company called 4STORM 4STORM Locks that is developing a Blue Tooth locking system that we can use to lock up our keys or bike when we head out to surf or exercise. Marco Ciccolini, 4STORM’s CEO, has said they will donate a $1 to the FWF for every unit they sell.

Bald Jonny glasses a Fallen Waterman’s Foundation logo on every board he shapes and donates $50 to the non-profit for every board order he gets.

You recently awarded your first three grants. Can you tell us a little bit of the story behind those? Who did they go to? How’d you discover these individuals?  

We started with two families. The first grants went to Dirk Denny's daughters, April and Jasmine. April was 13 at the time [of her father's death] and was surfing with him. She is a recent Cal Poly SLO graduate with a degree in Kinesiology, an EMT and USLA ocean lifeguard. Jasmine was 10 and was on the shore with her mom. She is currently a sophomore at UCSB studying biology with plans to attend medical school. The family continues to honor Dirk's legacy by providing service in water safety and coastal environmental protection.

The other grant went to Priscilla Witherspoon. She’s 20 years old and is in her second year at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Her plan is to transfer to Cal State East Bay next Fall to major in History. In a way Priscilla is following in her Dad's footsteps. He was born in Oakland and loved history. 

Priscilla's Dad was Mike Witherspoon.”Spoony” was the Channel Islands and Xcel sales rep in NorCal for 15 years before he moved to Southern California when he went to work for Vans as an independent Sales Representative. He was diagnosed with brain cancer over five years ago and at the time was given six months to a year to live. Needless to say, he fought it longer than anybody thought he could. He got to see one of his daughters sing at the Vatican and even got a closeup photo of the Pope. To Vans credit, they stuck to their word when they told him he would always have a job with Vans for as long as he could. As he got weaker they continued to support him, even though he was an independent rep.

Surfer Mike “Spoony” Witherspoon (center) passed away from brain cancer.

What other initiatives is FWF involved in? Water safety training? And how do these initiatives fit FWFs mission?

We've really tried to stay focused on our original mission statement of helping the children of fallen watermen and women get the college educations their parents would want them to have. The counseling piece has been the only addition we have added to our overall scope.

You asked about water safety training which we talk about on our website. The big wave chargers have taken water rescue training very seriously while most of us in the normal line ups don't think much about it until something goes wrong. Then we're all there to help out. There is no doubt we could all use some formal training in this regard. Fortunately, it seems like there is always at least one firefighter in the water at most breaks. Their stories of water rescues could fill up a book.

You’ve also asked for folks to submit their own stories of fallen waterman to your website. Tell us about that.

There are so many amazing rescue stories out there that we've heard in the parking lots of surf spots up and down both coasts. We ask people to tell their stories about how they go from being an everyday participant to becoming a hero in someone's eyes. We refer to Mitch Albom's book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven". It's the stories about people who have helped others in a fleeting moment, then go about their business and the people they may have saved don't actually meet them until they get to heaven. That's often times is what happens with the rescues that many of us have been a part of throughout our years in the water. Somebody breaks a leash and is struggling to get back to shore. Nobody paddles by him, you help him out. You get him to the beach, he says, "Thanks" and you paddle back out. Would he have made it in without your help? Maybe, maybe not.

The goal is to collect enough stories that we could publish a book and have the proceeds go toward paying for more college grants.

How can people get involved with FWF? 

Even though we've been at this for 8 years, the FWF is still in our infancy. We have some great ideas but we still need help implementing them. Additional sources of ongoing revenue are the key element that can turn the dial the most. Our ambassadors reach out to the companies and establishments in their areas that profit from our passion for the water to see if they are willing to give back to the waterman community that helps support their bottom lines. Socksmith of Santa Cruz and Sunshine Commercial Construction of the Bay Area have been two of the first companies to jump on board. We still need more Ambassadors to represent the FWF in many areas. As I mentioned earlier, they can be surfers, divers, kiteboarders or stand up paddlers. Most waterman do more than just one discipline. That's how they attain such a status.

Everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses. I know my weakness is in organizing events. Many people will tell me I need to organize a fundraising event and that is not in my wheelhouse. So that's the other thing we need help with for sure.

We've seen how college tuitions continue to rise. A four-year degree at a public university can cost as much as $120,000 after tuition, room and board. Private schools can be as high as $250,000. The fact is, the more money we can raise, the more kids we can help attain their college degrees. The grants we've given out so far are tiny compared to the overall costs of getting a child through college. People can reach out to me directly at: mhanley415@gmail.com

Agents of Change is presented by Cobian's Every Step Matters (ESM) initiative. Learn how, by choosing Cobian footwear, you can make a positive impact and enrich the lives of others at Every Step Matters.