San Diego surf program keeps at-risk boys from going under


• Boys to Men Mentoring Network connects fatherless, disadvantaged youngsters with waves — and options

By Pat Sherman

Although they live less than an hour from the ocean, some teen boys from single-parent, low-income households or foster homes have never been to the beach, much less set foot on a surfboard.

“A lot of their families don’t have cars, and they don’t have the mom or the dad that says, ‘Hey, let’s go to the beach today,’” said Craig McClain, executive director of San Diego-based Boys to Men Mentoring Network. “They just hang around the neighborhood — and for teenage boys with nothing to do, that’s a problem.”

Fortunately, McClain’s organization offers these young men a chance to behold the ocean’s seemingly endless expanse — and to contemplate the boundless potential in their own lives beyond the everyday obstacles and limitations they face.

As part of its outreach, Boys to Men holds regular outings for youth at beaches in La Jolla, Pacific Beach and Del Mar, where they learn to surf and connect with adult male mentors who offer a different perspective on life.

Boys to Men held its most recent twilight surf excursion and barbecue Aug. 12 in La Jolla Shores.

“We had five young men from a group foster home that had never been surfing — and had never been to La Jolla before,” McClain said of the event. “It was amazing how polite, gracious and thankful they were to be hanging out with a bunch of guys … and doing something that they wanted to learn. Each time a kid caught a wave, you could see the men’s arms go up and smiles on the boys’ faces.”

Boys to Men will be holding its fifth annual 100 Wave Challenge surf fundraiser for the organization from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, in Mission Beach.

Surfers — including Boys to Men mentors, youth participants and members of the public — collect pledges of $1 or more per wave. The goal is for adult participants to raise $1,000 each by getting a $1 per wave pledge from 100 people (and surfing 100 waves).

South African surfing legend, author and environmentalist Shaun Tomson will be the event’s celebrity host.

“It’s a fun day, though it is a challenge,” said Boys to Men mentor Jason Bernardo, who competed in the first four 100 Wave Challenges and is soliciting pledges for the fifth event next month. “In a normal surf session, you only catch five, 10 or 20 waves on really good days. A hundred waves is a lot of work.”

However, it’s nothing compared with the effort of Boys to Men participants, said Bernardo, who got involved with the program reluctantly about seven years ago.

After being dragged to one of the event’s fundraisers by a woman he was dating at the time — and viewing a moving presentation on the organization — Bernardo volunteered his services on the spot.

“I just found myself tearing up,” he said. “It really struck a chord with me.”

Boys to Men engages middle-school boys ages 11-14 and high school boys ages 15-17 who are identified by school administration to be at risk of educational failure, dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency or gang-related offenses. Since it was founded in 1996, the nonprofit has mentored more than 6,000 boys and has trained mentors in 24 states. About 72 percent of boys in the program are growing up without a father.

Beyond surfing excursions, mentors take boys on weekend camping trips and other outings.

Bernardo said youth typically enter the program extremely bottled up and leery.

“These 13-year-old kids come in and they’re acting pretty tough, but you … realize how bad they need this, and how badly they just need someone to tell them that they’re OK. You know, they’re hearing from everybody, ‘You’re stupid,’ ‘You’re getting bad grades,’ and ‘You’re getting in trouble.’

“Some people keep reinforcing that and we just kind of go, ‘Hey look, yeah, you’re doing drugs, yeah you’ve got bad grades, yeah you’re skipping school … (but) I think you’re great, I love you, I care about you. If you want to come and show up, I’ll be here either way.’ … It really makes a big difference to know that they’re going to have somebody there to support them that’s not just telling them there’s something wrong with them all the time.”

Bernardo recalled a 13-year-old boy who entered the program several years ago. He was hanging around gangs and addicted to pills and methamphetamines.

“He pretty adamantly knew that his next step was either death or jail,” Bernardo recalled. “To me, it really felt like he was on the verge of being one of these kids that is lost and goes into a school and shoots up the school. I mean, he had access to guns, he’s on drugs and he’s got nobody in his life.”

Eventually, Bernardo witnessed a breakthrough.

“It kind of sunk in that he had a reason to keep going … and he brought in a couple other young guys that were also thinking about getting into this gang. … Fast forward three or four years, and he’s out of trouble, he’s off drugs … and looking at colleges.”

Through his participation in the program, the boy has since started mentoring other youth — an 18- to 22-year-old model of success referred to in the program as a “journeyman,” Bernardo said.

“It’s amazing to watch,” he said. “They become better mentors than we are because they are so close to the same age as some of the kids that are just coming into the program.

“There’s so many layers of transformation you see, but it’s amazing when you see these kids mentoring other kids a few years later — going from being the ones that are really going to be a burden on society to clearly the ones that are saving society, that are probably more accountable and more responsible than a lot of 30- or 35-year-old men that I know.”

Trevor Callan, a mentor of five years, said it is important to introduce boys to physically challenging outdoor activities, such as hiking and fishing, like those he experienced with his own grandfather.

“For these young men that don’t have that kind of a father figure in their lives, Boys to Men (provides) the exact same situation, but using the ocean and surfing as a mechanism to teach them the importance of not giving up, overcoming challenges and staring adversity in the eye — to keep going and ultimately overcome it,” he said.

“Surfing has the ability to do all that for them — and for me — and that’s why I’m involved.”