Surf Lessons for Life


Elijah heads back into the water.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning at Rockaway Beach near 67th Street, where two dozen volunteers, mentors and teens are gathering at Stoked Mentoring’s surf shack. Program coordinator Sophia Lerdahl has been out to the water to check out the waves, and notes that although they’re pretty calm for what might be considered “good surf conditions,” they’ll be perfect for the novice surfers from all over the five boroughs, who are coming out to get their feet wet.

Lerdahl oversees the after-school mentor program and sports program at Stoked, which partners with other organizations focused on helping at-risk students succeed. Today, mentor and teen pairs from Stoked, Camp Interactive, The I Have a Dream Foundation, and Children of Promise–an organization that works with Brooklyn teens of incarcerated parents–have all come out to learn how to surf.

“They have no fear,” volunteer J.M. Zervoulei says of the teens.“The first day I helped lead the instruction on the beach, then we went out into the water. The morning was nice and easy, but that afternoon the waves picked up–the kids wanted to go in anyway and I kind of had to pull them out, tell them when it wasn’t safe anymore.”

Now in its sixth season, the two-month surf program is part of a year-round schedule of adrenaline-charged sports and workshops that Stoked organizes for teens and mentors.

Once the students progress from Stoked’s after-school program they are expected to make a one-year commitment, taking them through several different sports experiences, including skateboarding and skateboard builds in the spring and fall as well as snowboarding in the Catskills in the winter. Each one is used as a way to develop a different set of life skills.

“I see so many changes in them,” says Jill Becker, a guidance counselor from Information Technology High School in Long Island City. “They have become so much more responsible, have so much more self-esteem from being around adults; they set much higher goals for themselves.”

The surf program focuses on imparting lessons about respect, trust and healthy risk-taking. The theme of this particular Saturday was patience. The group prepares with a discussion on the patience required to master surfing–waiting for the wave, learning when to stand on the board, falling off and being willing to try again.

Everyone is on the same level, engaged in the same process.

For 18-year-old Keanna Basden, learning to surf means not giving up, even though she is still learning how to swim and says she doesn’t like the ocean. But she says all this with a smile, determined to give it her best shot and overcome her fear. “I want to at least try,” she says.

Adults over 25 can get involved as a volunteer or mentor. Typically volunteers have a transferable skill set in one of the sports, while mentors aren’t required to possess a background in sports at all.

“They both learn the sport together and they both push and motivate each other while surfing,” explains Stoked Mentoring founder Steve Larosiliere.

There are also 10 to 15 experienced volunteers present for any given surf session and Stoked NY has more than a hundred volunteers who have varying levels of skill in the various sports that Stoked teaches.

“We really rely on our volunteers to make these program days,” says volunteer coordinator Leanne Fonseca.

Looking at the scene, it’s hard to tell who’s who–the volunteers, mentors and young adults all blend together to form one cohesive community.

“Stoked is about a lifestyle,” says mentor Karla Calderon, a robotics teacher who has been working with Stoked since 2006. Calderon is a mentor to Hema Puran, a recent graduate of Information Technology High School, who was drawn in by the skateboard build. The pair relax in the sand, chatting about life and work, and make plans for the week ahead.

The tone is lighthearted, still the impact is profound–of the 1,000 youth that have been engaged in Stoked’s mentoring program, 100 percent have graduated high school.

”The strong adult community, along with the really enthusiastic kids, along with us just trying to have as much fun as possible, is a really great way for everyone to spend their Saturday,” Lerdahl says. “This is just really invaluable.”

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