When surfer Joe Sigurdson found himself with the responsibility of being a step-parent at the age of 19, he had to go from boy to man rather early on in his life. He worked two jobs to support his family. The stress wore on Sigurdson and at 28 he found himself at the doorsteps of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting looking to confront his out of control drinking and drug use problems head-on.
After a couple years Sigurdson managed to get sober, an accomplishment he credits to the acceptance he found in AA meetings. The lack of judgment for his past actions at the group meetings, combined with the concern expressed for his future, illustrated the lasting power that positive examples and support systems can have over those looking to change their lives. Along with working the AA’s 12 steps for the next 32 years of his life, Sigurdson found the power of mentorship contagious and realized that there was a contingent of society where it was heavily needed—mostly fatherless boys that were at risk to others and themselves.
Sigurdson ended up co-founding Boys to Men, a nonprofit organization that hosts after school group meetings for troubled teenage boys. The group meetings provide a non-judgmental atmosphere where the boys are able to speak truthfully with each other and facilitators about what's going on in their lives and why they're making the decisions they are.
Some of these boys are suicidal, members of gangs ranging from street to neo-nazi and come from, or have experienced, every ugly aspect that exists in society. The Boys to Men website is replete with testimonials of participants, one from a boy who was hell-bent on going to prison because he thought "it looked fun" after seeing a reality TV show documenting the violence that goes on inside the razorwire-topped walls. These boys are given male mentors in the meetings, something a majority of them are missing at home, who help them autonomously define the type of life they want and how to achieve it. What's unique about Boys to Men is that it is almost completely funded by surfing.
In 2010, Sigurdson was inspired to start something called the 100 Wave Challenge to fund Boys to Men after having a magical surf session. Surfers ranging from average joes to legends like Shaun Tomson gather donations from friends and family to participate in a day of surfing in San Diego with a goal to ride 100 waves each. The event has become a huge success and pros such as Damien Hobgood have climbed on board to support. Each year the event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars that helps sustain and expand Boys to Men across the world.
SURFER called up Sigurdson to learn more about how he combined his two greatest passions, helping troubled young men and surfing, to make a positive difference in the world.
You work with boys who are at a pretty vulnerable age, do they feel the camaraderie and support right away? Or does it take a while for them to break through and open up?
It takes a few meetings. We as the mentors keep showing up and we just keep laying our issues out in front of them. We'll just keep putting ourselves out there until one of the boys is willing to take a risk and share his story. Once one boy shares his story, usually the kid sitting next to him will go, "Oh shit, I'm doing that too."
When these guys feel that safety and that they're connected to each other through this human experience, they're dying to get rid of this stuff and they really open up. It's almost like an exorcism, they get rid of these secrets and they feel lighter and better about themselves. All they need is permission, they've just been waiting for someone to tell them, "it's okay man, go ahead." A lot of them don't have elders or men in their lives to tell them they're alright and to let everything go by laying it out.
The boys are getting the affirmation, the blessing and the acknowledgment from the mentors that show up on a consistent basis. It's those things that have been missing from their lives, they don't even know they need it until they get a taste of it and then they want more of it. We just meet the boys where they are and suspend our judgments. We find the good that's in them and encourage and support them to make good choices. We follow up with them to make sure they're doing what they say they want to do to be the men they say they want to be.
So how did surfing come into help support this program?
I've been surfing since I was 10 years old and I'm 60 now. Boys to Men and surfing are my two passions. I remember it was Christmas Eve day of 2009 and I was surfing with my son-in-law out at Pacific Beach. The waves were super groomed and the ocean was a machine. I must've caught 35-40 waves in an hour and a half. I came out of the water and I said, "Man, that was unbelievable! I wonder how long it would take to catch 100 waves?" I started thinking that maybe if I could catch 100 waves that I could get people to give Boys to Men money for each wave. And then I realized that I don't need to catch 100 waves and that I can get 100 guys to catch a 100 waves and we'll call it the "100 Wave Challenge."
The following September we did our first 100 Wave Challenge. It was just my surf buddies, there were 60 of us, and we raised $70,000. At the time, Boys to Men was only in one school, this allowed us to expand to three schools.
The 100 Wave Challenge has been pivotal to our success. Every year we're able to add more and more schools. We've gone from one school to 43 schools in eight years. We've gone from raising $70,000 to $373,000. This year we're hoping to raise $400,000. I can tell you that from last year to this year, we added nine more schools for the fall semester of 2018.
How does 100 Wave Challenge Work?
You register to surf, it doesn't cost anything to register, as you register you set up your own landing page. If you don’t know how to do that we have people in the office that will help set it up for you. And then you send an email out to all your friends and family with a link to the landing page.
On the landing page, your story as to why you would do something ridiculous like the 100 Wave Challenge to raise money for Boys to Men is told. Your aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents read that and go, "Oh, look what Ben's doing!" And they don't know what Boys to Men is and they don't care, but they love you and go, "I'm going to throw fifty or a hundred bucks at Ben."
So that's our model. We set up 1,500 square feet of shade on the beach and have breakfast catered by Soup Plantation, lunch catered by Board and Brew and we grill carne asada. We have yoga classes and a massage therapist on site. The whole day is geared to spoil the surfers and to make sure they're in good shape to catch a 100 waves so we can reach our goal of raising $400,000. The whole day is awesome.
So you don't have to be Damien Hobgood or Shaun Tomson to do the 100 Wave Challenge, any surfer can participate?
Absolutely. Not everyone is going to catch 100 waves, so when people do donate, they just donate a flat fee. It's not based on a per wave thing.
What is a transformation story that sticks out to you during your Boys to Men experience?
Jose was a freshman at a local high school, he was a third-generation gangster and was dealing dope. He was also a very good student and a star football player. One day he came back to his locker and the local Police Department was there and they arrested him for what they found inside and he was kicked out of school.
Jose enrolled in a continuation school that we happened to have a Boys to Men program set up at. Jose had never even sat in the same room as white people, he didn't know any white people, he didn't like white people and didn't trust white people. He was very resistant. Jose was able to get community service hours for attending Boys to Men groups so he had some incentive to keep showing up. He would come but would fold his arms, shake his head and not say anything. We kept showing up week after week, sharing the truth and putting ourselves out there. Jose watched some of the other guys start to open up.
We did a weekend retreat, and he attended but he really did not want to be there. Jose was marked by his gang to be a shot-caller. He was told at 15 that when he turned 18 he would be running the show and given that prestigious role. By the end of the weekend, this kid had absolutely made the decision that he was done with the gang life. He decided that there was more in store for his life than what the gang had to offer.
Three weeks after Jose made that decision he came to the Boys to Men group. He pulled up his shirt and his body had welts all over it. He said, "Okay, I'm out." He had gotten jumped out of the gang to be a part of Boys to Men.
Jose is now 22 years old, at 19 we hired him to be part of the staff. He has been one of our lead facilitators for the last three years and is running the groups that he used to sit in.
This is just one story, I've got hundreds of them.
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.