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 hartchap@earthlink.com.