Waves of Change
Upstart Wahine Project gives little local girls big confidence.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Setting aside my inclination for self-preservation, I turn my back on crashing waves, and paddle my way toward shore. The surfboard lifts, moving much faster than I expected. I now know my fear of death-by-surfing is warranted.
Somehow I hold on long enough to scramble onto the beach. I don’t even attempt to stand up, but I do survive. My new 15-year-old surf partner Jasmine offers up congratulations and urges me to take another turn.
This is no empty encouragement. Jasmine already has credibility and my admiration: She is still dripping from her first time surfing – and her first time ever going in the ocean.
We’re here among 20 girls, some as young as 9, sharing surfboards, splashing around and bravely attempting to corral the might of the tides.
Many in the group, despite living in Monterey County all their lives, first swam in the ocean only a few months ago. Now they’re veterans. Caroline, 14, offers a lesson. Given my lack of surf experience, she says, I’m known as a “kook.”
The Wahine Project, a year-old nonprofit, pulls together these current and former kooks twice monthly for surf class at Del Monte Beach.
Part of Wahine’s (which is Hawaiian for woman or girl) mission, says founder Dionne Ybarra, is to break down traditional barriers between local girls.
“We want the beach to be a level playing field,” she says. “In a wet suit, you’re all the same no matter your color. It’s a mixed up group of girls in terms of experience, age, backgrounds.”
Ybarra is acquainted with coaxing people through challenges. She teaches parenting with the Carmel Adult School at Tularcitos Elementary School in Carmel, and worked for 15 years providing care to birthing mothers.
But 39-year-old Ybarra only recently faced her own aquatic fears. “I didn’t even go past the shorebreak until 32,” she says. “I feel like I can face the world now that I’ve faced this crazy ocean.”
That’s the other, crucial component of the Wahine Project: Confronting the Pacific makes it easier to take on the terrors of a typical teenage existence, life with a single parent or the world without disposable income.
“I’m Mexican and I’m from East Alisal, just not raised with the ocean,” Ybarra says. “That I had the opportunity is so far from where I come from.”
“WE WANT THE BEACH TO BE A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. IN A WETSUIT YOU’RE ALL THE SAME.”
Jasmine lives in Prunedale, and her 22-year-old sister, Ruby, a mother of two, leaves her Los Banos home at 7am to get her to the beach in Monterey on time.
Ybarra hopes to reach more students in need in greater proportions than she currently does, but is pleased that while only about a third of the 45 participants today demonstrate economic need, there is a good deal of diversity in age, geography and ethnicity.
With donations from individuals, a $1,121 contribution from Monterey County Gives! and $35 per month from the three dozen girls who can afford it, the organization has collected about $8,000, enough for wetsuits, boards and two paid surf instructors. Ybarra is at work on grant applications that she hopes will transform Wahine into a sustainable enterprise.
The girls meet twice monthly in Marina for ocean ecology classes, where surf instructor Kelly Damschen, a middle school teacher at Oasis Charter School in Salinas, writes the curriculum. She’s giddy over an upcoming lesson on one-time use plastics.
At a recent class, Damschen asked each girl to describe her “favorite ocean moment.” For a few veteran Wahine members, it’s hitting a gnarly wave. For Jasmine, it’s all unchartered territory. “I don’t think I have any ocean moments,” she tells the group.
Back at the beach, that changes. She’s among a group of girls jumping rope with a long piece of seaweed as Damschen prepares a warm-up yoga routine on the beach. Then Ybarra deploys her team of instructors while she stays on shore.
Jasmine, though outwardly shy, doesn’t need too much coaxing to tempt the surging sea. It’s only a few tries until she’s up on her knees, then her feet. I’m not quite as successful, notching one successful run but otherwise only able to stand up long enough to fall down.
Later, as I see Jasmine on top of the waves – beaming – I can’t help but imagine her ocean moments, and the confidence Ybarra is banking on, will only multiply from here.
THE WAHINE PROJECT meets at 4:30pm on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at REI in Marina for ecology class, and at 9am on the first and third Sunday on Del Monte Beach at Casa Verde Way. Learn more at www.thewahineproject.org.