Surfing is a simple act that has the power to radically change lives, especially for those who experience its thrill for the very first time. Such is the rationale behind City Surf Project, a non-profit that introduces San Francisco's at-risk youth to surfing—not just the sport, but also to the health benefits and the social restoration that accompany being a part of the tribe.

In early May, the City Surf Project showed up with a pack of frothing high-schoolers to sample the playful surf at Cowell's Beach on Santa Cruz's West Side. With the assistance CSP staff and pro surfers Anthony Tashnick and Darshan Gooch, this semester's students had perfect, 1-2 foot sandbar surf all to themselves. The surfed-out smiles at the end of the day were all the explanation needed to show the depth of their stoke.

"These kids are soaking all this up at such a fast rate," said Johnny Irwin, CSP's director and co-founder. "It's amazing to see. I can really tell that they weren't taking a single wave or moment for granted".

City Surf Project finds high school students in urban areas who live near the beach, but who have still had no connection to surfing or its culture. The staff, comprised of surfers who grew up in Northern California and who have a love for the ocean, aims to bridge the opportunity gap between San Francisco's low-income and affluent neighborhoods.

Irwin credits his inspiration for the project to his time teaching underserved students at Leadership High in San Francisco. Along with the help of City Surf Project co-founder and San Francisco Fire Department Paramedic Hunter Chiles, he took several of his students on a few surfing field trips. The feeling of swimming in the ocean and riding waves profoundly moved the students, many of whom had never been to one of their local beaches. Irwin saw their confidence rise as they learned how to paddle out and pop up on a board, and he decided that connecting these kids with the sea was an important endeavor. "I wanted to show these city kids how different our lifestyle can be and to understand the value and quality of the surfing experience".

The semester starts out by learning about surfing history — the roots of the culture. Then the students are introduced to the basics, including oceanography and the science behind waves, wind, and tides. From there, surf etiquette and terminology are taught, as well as the importance of environmental stewardship and awareness.

Throughout the semester, students have 6-8 beach days of surfing, weather permitting. Just last week was Leadership High's "Santa Cruz Surf Day," a final day at the beach in a town famous for its surf culture.

The local pros were impressed. Tashnick saw the sparkle in the kids’ eyes, a sparkle that he shared as a young surfer himself. He thinks that local kids could learn a thing or two by watching the students and their enthusiasm.

"I'm not sure if it's because they don't live by the beach, but they sure seem to appreciate the ocean more than a lot of the local kids do,” Tashnick said.

For Gooch, his favorite part of the day was being able to watch the kids’ stoke spread.

"I saw a lot of young people feeling empowered today,” Gooch said. “It turns out that one of the kids I worked with had been having a difficult time getting in the ocean, let alone the pool. Throughout the day, he seemed to transform, showing a lot of courage and feeling increasingly comfortable and open to surfing and being in the ocean. That's the magic of surfing. I'm glad I was able to share it."

A Leadership High student named Ashley sees the ocean as an escape, and was grateful for CSP and all the volunteers.

“As a person of color, there aren't many resources or ways for me to enjoy activities like this,” she said. “But the City Surf program helps get kids like me interested in and exposed to the ocean."

Another participant, Denilson, sees learning to surf as a metaphor for life. "Sometimes you get up," he explained, "and sometimes you fall off. The times you’re up are really rewarding, because you know you worked really hard for it.”

For more about City Surf Project, check out its website here.

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