One morning as I paddled out with a young beginner surfer, I heard her from behind me crying out that her arms were too tired to keep going. I waited for her to catch up and then reminded her of Dory in Finding Nemo, and how she would sing to herself “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” We began singing together “just keep paddling, just keep paddling,” and in no time she made it back out to the break on her own, able to feel the thrill of catching another wave on her surfboard. I felt thrilled!
I was a high schooler at that time, volunteering with the non-profit group Surfrider Spirit Sessions, with which my uncle invited me to come help out. That summer I spent numerous Saturday mornings amongst the kids, assisting the adult mentors, hanging out, learning, and sharing good cheer and enthusiasm. Most of the kids were at-risk-youth sent to the program by Oahu’s family court. I watched as kids came with serious faces, many afraid of the ocean, many having heard throughout life: “You can’t do that.” I saw how being amongst positive mentors and getting pushed to experience such a powerful force as the ocean changed the lives and attitudes of these teens and tweens.
These surf sessions were not only about facing fears and building confidence but also about growing awareness of the ‘āina, or land. Cynthia Derosier, the founder of Spirit Sessions, reminded everyone of our responsibility to care for the land that takes care of us. The time there firmly instilled within me the importance of giving back to nature and the ocean since it gives us such a wonderful playground to grow and learn in.
This mālama i ka ‘āina idea really took a hold of me, and a couple years later when I moved to New York City for school and began surfing at Rockaway Beach in Queens I couldn’t help but pick up trash after each surf session. At first, locals watched me with confused looks as if thinking, ‘This is New York, the beaches are littered with trash, what does this girl think she’s going to do?’ Then, to my delight, some of my surf friends started joining me, then some of the youth from the area, and by the time summer came one of the local kids I had gotten to know decided to plan a beach clean-up! It’s amazing to see the ripple effect of a good deed that began all the way back in Hawai’i at Spirit Sessions.
The Christmas after participating in the Spirit Sessions, my uncle gifted me with the book by Cynthia Derosier called The Spirit Surfer, a compilation of inspirational quotes accompanied by beautiful images of surfers and waves. This book was the genesis of the Surfrider Spirit Sessions.
Cynthia’s book was so successful that Family Court Judge Karen Radius contacted her about creating a workshop for kids to make their own books like the one she had made. The aim was to expose these at-risk youth to uplifting life lessons. “No,” Cynthia replied to the request. “The children need the real-life experience. They need to get into the water and find those lessons out for themselves.” With the help of Judge Radius, numerous probation officers, and the wonderful surf instructor Sam, they devised a plan to get the kids surfing.
The Surfrider Spirit Sessions officially became a non-profit organization in 2009, a few years after its inception. Around five years ago Cynthia handed off a bulk of the responsibilities to her trusted friend Connie Sizemore, who is the current executive director. Spirit Sessions continues to run in 8-week intervals throughout the year, welcoming new youth and sometimes bringing back graduates of the program as mentors for the newcomers. Even during the challenges of the Covid pandemic, the program perseveres with added safety measures. Youth who attend the sessions come not only from family court referrals but also from independent applications, allowing Spirit Sessions to welcome youth in need from many different situations. “Kids have been beaten up and torn down, but we remind them that they have a spirit, an essence, that’s important to the world,” says Cynthia.
“Being in the ocean envigorates the spirit and brings confidence,” says Cynthia. The Spirit Session website reads: “We don’t see ‘at-risk’… we see future champions and leaders.” This program continues to foster courage, awareness, and leadership in challenged youth across Oahu. “The purpose of surfing is to feed your spirit, and to stay connected to nature.”
You can learn more about the great work at Surfrider Spirit Sessions by visiting: www.https://www.surferspirit.org
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