Thursday, August 17, 2006

Remember when I told you about the LA Surfbus – which takes inner city kids on waves, literally, and teaches them to enjoy the ocean – and be safe?
One day a week and all summer long, the kids learn how to dive into waves and ride them in, climbing on surf boards, flying on bogey boards and often body surf to the shore line – and many of these children have never even been to the beach.
Toward the end of the summer, I was able to surf over to Huntington Beach and spot
the kids in the waves myself. Some of the kids thought it was the last day and when I told them it wasn’t, they were begging me to let them come back.
I, unfortunately, wasn’t the woman to grant them that magic wish. But Mary Setterholm, a surfing champion, was. When they surrounded her to ask if they could return, she nodded her head with a smile and the kids ran off screaming in the ocean: “We get to come back. We get to come back,” and then gleefully, some of them jumped on their instructor’s back.
Here’s what the kid’s said to me about the program:

§ --Lauren Alleshouse, 8, : “I learned to go by myself and when this big wave was coming, I made it all the way to the shore.”

§ --Kaitlyn Andrews, 10, who lives near the water, said: “I’ve lived by the beach my whole life and don’t swim. I just had a good time and I’m not scared I’m going to drowning anymore. I learned to surf, body board, go under waves. I never did that before.”

§ --Charlene Ramirez, 8, “What did I learn? I learned about surfing. It’s a lot of work to learn and you have to keep practicing.”

§ --Tatianna Newborn, 8, “I liked going under the waves and throwing water at the instructors.”

§ --Chris Vu, 7, who jumped on the back of a surfboard and rode it into the shore: “Actually this is my first time. I was just lucky I guess.”

§ --Kyria Washington, 12, “It was the first time I ever learned bogey boarding. We got to swim around and I learned how to swim in deep, deep, deep water.”

Mary, who won the women’s national surfing championships in 1972, became like a magic fairy Surfmother – after an incident at the beach took her for another journey in life. She was teaching a bunch of kids how to surf when all of a sudden lifeguards ran by and a helicopter flew overhead Later, she learned a 13-year-old girl, who had come from the inner city, had drowned.
That’s when she decided she would get as many land locked kids down to the beach, especially kids who wouldn’t normally receive such opportunities. She pays for the program through donations and her private Surf Academy.
Every day, I thank God for people like Mary. She may not have been able to stop that little girl from drowning that day, but she probably will help prevent such horrible mishaps in the future.
And that’s no wipe out.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

This one’s for Paigey…

In a world filled with grief and pain, the type that can turn a family upside down and make them feel as though they are about to drown, few ways seem left to surface and drink in air again.
When the Marquez family lost their sparkling 4-year-old Paige -- fished from their lives by a radical brain tumor which swamped her brain stem and later rippled along her spinal cord, the holes and gaps left behind were so enormous, it seemed they’d never be seamed together again.
The only trouble was, when you talk to the family, you know that “Paigey” wouldn’t want it that way.
Before she became ill, she had boundless energy accompanied by a sense of compassion and caring unusual to most four-year-olds, her parents, Cheryl and Tim, told me when I interviewed them and tried to make absolute sense out of such a loss when there is no logic to be had.
Paige left the family behind with these sharp, but crucial memories which would lead them on a new path:
--If a fight broke out, she would wave her arms at everyone and tell the family: “Guys, stop fighting. Stop fighting.”
--When someone wasn’t well, she turned into a family caregiver, rubbing the backs of her brother, Joseph, 8, or sister, Blake, 6. She’d care for her mom and dad in the same way.
--As family members streamed to the hospital (Cheryl stayed with her every night) they would burst into tears or start crying. That made her angry. She told them to stop. Paige only cried in the hospital when she was in extreme pain.

It’s been one year since one Paige Lauren Marquez left all of us in a snap when she told doctors to stop. She was too tired to continue the series of treatments, the poking and pinching, the medicines.
It’s been one year since the family realized that Paige would want them to heal, want them to go on, and more than anything, help other children with catastrophic illnesses. Sometimes in life, people are telling us what they want us to do the whole time – just by their own actions.
I honestly believed Paige did this for her family. She left them a simple list: stop fighting, take care of others, stop crying.
On July 15, the entire Marquez family (including cousins, uncles and aunts) held a huge, dinner fundraiser in Paige’s memory in San Pedro, California with all proceeds being donated to the groups that helped their daughter: Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Center at Millers Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation and the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation.
The goal was to raise $10,000. At this point, nearly $17,000 (and more keeps pouring in) have swamped the memorial fund. Often just when people see Paige’s picture – her gurggling smiles and mischievous eyes – they whip out their check books. You just can’t help it when you look at her photo – her eyes and smiles tell you what to do.
If your heart so incline’s you, look up to give donations to this site or call (310) 892-3503.
I couldn’t help giving myself. I knew Paige would want me too.
And Paigey…to you specifically: you are “somewhere over the rainbow…with skies of blue and clouds of white…where trouble melts like lemon drops…”
Thank you for helping other kids. It’s that simple.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Diana L. Chapman
Mary Setterholm is a woman after my own heart. Her mission: to take inner city kids to the beach, teach them about water, surfing, waves and how to survive in the sea.
Her reason: She never wants to see a kid drown again. When I heard about Mary from a mutual friend, I knew I had to meet her for, if for nothing else, inspiration. She cares about kids other than the five she raised--two of whom help her with her mission today.
This Hermosa Beach resident, a 1972 U.S. women’s surfing champion, who teaches kids about the sea will take hundreds of kids from all over the impoverished sections of Los Angeles – most of whom know little about the ocean -- and they will board Mary’s LA Surfbus once a week, drive to Huntington Beach or to other beaches and learn about the ocean in ways they could never have imagined.
By the end of the summer, kids who were once terrified of waves will likely know how to surf them. At a minimum, they will understand the ocean much better. And they will learn all this for free. Mary runs the program with proceeds from her Surf Academy in Hermosa Beach – a school designed to teach anyone how to surf, from young pups to the elderly.
But this didn’t happen before she went through her own wild journeys, quitting the surfing life around 20, moving to New York for school, becoming a fashion designer and then a sales manager at Nordstrom’s when she returned to California. But she wasn’t sure if this was what she should be doing with her life.
In 1998 while recuperating from a horrendous bicycle accident, she went to the beach and prayed, asking God what she was supposed to do. In her head, she heard a strong voice announce: “You are supposed to teach surfing.”
“I could feel there was a big something missing, but I never thought I’d go back to surfing again,” she mused over a cup of coffee. Mary, 50, looks exactly how you’d expect a surfer to look: strong and healthy, short-but-shaggy blonde hair and a Volkswagen van with dive suits stuffed insid, fallling out of plastic baskets, and surfboards perched on top the van.
“I was told to go back to your first love,” Mary revealed. “It was like I knocked on the door and was let in.” Soon after that, she began teaching surfing classes for the city of Manhattan Beach, but the lists of interested people grew endless and she began thinking about starting her own company.
In 1999, she caught another wave of change – this time, forever. She was teaching a group of about 30 kids south of the Manhattan Beach pier when the entire beach became enflamed. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Lifeguards and paramedics raced by. A 12-year-old girl – Mary remembers the name to this day, Teresa Alexander--had skipped school, taken a bus from Los Angeles to the beach and was swept away by a riptide. The girl drowned.
Mary felt overwhelmed and helpless but with a keen sense of urgency that she was there to prevent further drownings like this. She began asking parents to bring “water shy” children to her and she would teach them to swim and surf and the ways of the ocean for free. But her desire to bring hundreds of children, especially inner city kids who might never have seen the water, to the beach bloomed especially after she began her Surf Academy business.
One hundred employees and seven-days-a week-of surf lessons later, Mary dumped in much of her own money to pay for LA Surf bus. She works primarily through city recreation departments and organizations like the Boys & Girls Club.
This year, she connected with the San Pedro club on Cabrillo Avenue. Antonio Prieto, the branch director, said he’s thrilled to give his kids this chance.
“It’s a great opportunity, especially with someone of her caliber,” he says. “We’re going to send about 25 kids. Our slots will be full.”
Because Mary spends much of her own money to support the cause, she was delighted when the Automobile Club of Southern California made LA Surfbus the focus of its “battery roundup” fundraising effort in April. The company donated $1.50 for every car battery dropped off at recycling centers – a win-win for everyone because it helps keep battery poisons away from children, animals and the ocean environment.
“I’ve never received so many phone calls in a day,” said Elaine Beno, an Auto Club spokeswoman. I’m just delighted someone else has taken up a cause that has bothered me for years, since the first couple of times I wrote about inner city teenagers drowning at South Bay beaches.
But you don’t have to go to the inner city to find kids who can’t swim. I discovered that when I found hundreds of local kids at Peck Park Pool who had no idea how to do the crawl – and they live near the beach!
When Mary launched the program in May 2002, she went to McArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles for a “dry beach day,” putting inner tubes beneath surfboards to give kids the feel of bouncing across waves, or “liquid silver,” as she calls it.
“These kids had never even seen a surfboard!” she exclaimed. “All I know is that going to this extreme, lives are changing, and they will continue to change for generations to come.”
To make a contribution to LA Surfbus, write to Mary Setterholm, director, LA Surfbus, 302 19th Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254 or call (310) 372-2790.
To suggest column ideas involving kids to Diana Chapman, email her at

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

To blog about kids.
That is the mission of The Underdog for Kids site.
It's about anything to do with children that pertains to daily life: where to go in town , where to travel, different folks stretching out a helping hand to mentor, bad kids, good kids, new programs in school – anything I can do to help the public understand the difficult circumstances that children face today.

Currently a newspaper columnist, I want to expand beyond writing about things to do with kids like visiting a museum or the zoo. I want to write about issues involving children I stumble onto every day.

As a parent volunteer at Los Angeles Unified School District campuses, I have many things to share with other parents about how their children try to cope in school. Believe me, things happen at all schools--they are like small cities, after all--that we should all be aware of, whether the school is public or private, in a wealthy community or one that is middle-class or poor. I invite you to add your experiences to this blog site.
Today's menu: Mayoral Takeover of Los Angeles Unified School District

Car pooling with the kids to their local middle school, I announced to them that the Los Angeles mayor forced his way in the door and was successfully paving his way to break in and takeover the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Their reaction:

“That’s it, I’m moving to San Diego,” announced a 13-year-old student whose father is heavily involved in Los Angeles city politics in our region.

My own son, who loves San Pedro where we live, immediately agreed that he wanted to move out of Los Angeles, too.

At first it surprised me, but when I thought about it, it became clear what was happening here. Both children have been subjected to watching their parents frustration over the years tackle one giant, unwielding, unforgiving, entrenched beaucracy: the city of Los Angeles.
I choke everytime I hear Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa bleat that the school district forces a “one glove fits all” attitude across the board and uses that as one of the many springboards to the reason why he should run the school district.

The powerful move, which only pushes his own politcal agenda (I believe he wants next to be California’s governor and then the first Hispanic president of the United States) makes my stomach churn after watching scores of troubles within the city – where I’ve seen mucho prominence of the “one glove fits all" atttitude.

It’s not the school district that’s driving me mad. I’m not entirely pleased with it and I can see a break up is truly necessary. However, everytime I’ve knocked at my kid’s school doors, they’ve let me in willingly to volunteer and I do so, every chance I get, so I can help not just my own son – but scores of Los Angeles kids.

Here are my questions that we all should be asking:

--Why has the mayor avoided the residents, the parents in particular, in this arrangement he’s creating up in Sacramento? Why does he think he should take away our rights – our rights as residents and citizens to vote – a right we used when we voted for the board members of our school district regions? Why should we give up those rights?

--Why is the fight not in Los Angeles where it belongs? Why, in fact, does this not get placed on a ballot measure so all of us can decide and have a vote. We all know why it’s not being done here. It would never pass.

--Why would any of us want the mayor to run our schools when he has yet to clean up his own backyard? There are hundreds of examples I can give where the city breaks down completely. Here are some:

--Our local city-run pool couldn’t even make change for patrons coming to the pool to swim laps, and were told to go to McDonald’s to get some…many times. (The city is too afraid employees will steal the money.) “What do you suggest we do?” a manager asked me. Geez, it’s not rocket science.

--Our local, city-run animal shelter couldn’t give change to a woman trying to adopt a dog and told her she get change herself. I just prayed she would come back so that the animal didn’t get put down instead.

--When I begged the city to remove a giant, city-planted ficus tree from in front of our house because it was throttling our sewer line, they refused because the tree helped protect the environment. Whatever trouble the tree was causing, city officials said, was our problem because it is a “privilege” for residents to tap into city sewer lines even if roots (city roots, I might add) are clogging them.

When the same tree fell from the weight of its branches, missing our house by a few inches, it took months for an aide from our councilwoman’s office to get the stump removed – and not without hitches. The first time the crews showed up, they left because neighbors were parked in the way. Then, the city came out and put up barriers but left them for weeks at a time to the point that the neighbors began parking there, anyway. After more calls, a city crewman showed up after driving down from East Los Angeles (40 miles away) – to do what? To put up barriers, which his boss "told him to do.” “You had to drive down here just for that?" I said. "As you can see, they're already here!” He was as chagrined as I was. I wonder how much the taxpayers paid that employee to waste his time.

With the tree now gone (God must have been on our side), I called the city to repair the sidewalk. The city tree roots lifting up so that my nickname for the incline is Skateboard Ridge. All the kids love running and skateboarding across it – an accident waiting to happen so we all can be sued. Again, I tried to go through the council office and talk to street services, but I was rebuffed with one man telling me in street services: “We’ll get to it in 15 years.”

I sat on the city’s Peck Park Advisory Board for eight years and watched the city promote employees who were yes-folks to their bosses and who climbed the ladder – and were completely incompetent obstructionists. The people who forged ahead to fight for the community were brutally battered by their bosses – to the point, they finally quit.

That pattern happens repeatedly.

I watched city officials tell advisory boards that they couldn’t do the things they wanted. It just would not work. It was just always easier for city employees to say “that can’t be done” then to actually get things done.

There are many stories to tell about problems with the city of Los Angeles. But I don't want to bore you with dozens and dozens of examples. And I know the school district is by far from perfect. But I just can't, for the life of me, understand the logic of one giant, inept bureaucracy taking over another that it calls inept -- when it is not without a few giant, ugly red blemishes of its own.

So this is my question to my mayor: How can a city that runs so poorly take over a school district? Could you, Mr. Mayor, please, please clean up your own backyard first? Then perhaps we can all believe in you.