Valpo Surf Project

The Valpo Surf Project, a non-profit organization based in Valparaíso, Chile, engages inner-city youth through surfing instruction, academic mentoring and environmental education.  They are currently holding a fundraising campaign to raise  $30,000 for a large late model van to continue to take surf trips with their students and participate in environmental community service projects.

The VSP currently relies on public buses for transportation which means a big part of their day is devoted to getting to the beach and back. They want to spend more time incorporating swimming lessons and other environmental activities into their programming.  A new van will allow the Valpo Surf Project to provide more efficient and safe transportation to their current students and broaden their base of service to children from other neighborhoods in the city, one of their primary goals for this year.

The organization is opening up the sport of surfing and ocean access to youth for whom it was previously unavailable. We wanted to find a bit more about how they are using surfing to help empower the kids of Valparaíso so we decided to ask co-director Jon Steuber a few questions (below):

Up and coming WCTer Diego on the 6’0 fish

Where did the inspiration for this project come from?

The inspiration for the project came from a surf trip up the Pacific Coast that co-director Wiley Todd and I took studying abroad in Chile and Argentina, respectively. While traveling through Chile, Peru and Ecuador, we experienced the high costs of surfing through replacing broken fins and leashes and saw that surfing was largely reserved for the elite classes because of equipment costs. We moved back to Valparaíso after graduating from college in 2008 with the intention of surfing and teaching English; however, with co-director Henry Myer and co-founding local surfer Andres Ponce Morales, we started to envision a way to combine our passions to make surfing and education more accessible in the city.

Nico practicing his paddling on the inside

Describe what the typical afternoon in your program looks like.

The program runs on a weekly schedule and our 26 students, ranging from 8-18, are broken up into three groups according to surfing and English ability level. Each week students have one day of after school English classes and tutorials, one day of swimming lessons in the winter (or when new participants need instruction and practice before heading into the ocean), and at least one full day surf session each weekend. We also do supplementary after school programming during the week such as guest speakers and surf movies as well as organizing larger scale beach cleans and community service projects once a month.

Why is there such a strong disconnect between the youth and ocean in this area of Chile?

As Valparaíso is a city built on the hills surrounding a busy shipping port, the city’s inhabitants see the ocean everyday but rarely interact with it apart from industry. Our participants, who live high in the hills of Valparaíso, don’t have the expendable income to be able to get to the beaches surrounding the city, much less to buy a surfboard and wetsuit. Valparaíso is not the cleanest city and littering is very commonplace. But, through the Valpo Surf Project, our participants are beginning to cultivate a sense of ownership for the ocean environment and see how their actions on land affect their experience in the water. VSP participants are starting to realize that discarding a soda can on the city street doesn’t actually get rid of it, but just funnels it back to the oceans and beaches where they now surf.

Pedro showing off the trash he collected in his neighborhood

Who qualifies to be a part of your program? How many of them have prior swimming and/or surfing experience?

We encountered our current group of 26 students through a junta de vecinos (neighborhood organization) in one of the tougher neighborhoods in the hills of Valpo. We work with students aged 8-18 who are among the second and third poorest tax brackets in Chile; the services are free of charge and the only requirement is students‘ attendance, commitment to activities, and positive behavior. In 2011, we plan to meet our goal of doubling enrollment by reaching out to other juntas de vecinos in underserved and at-risk neighborhoods. Before their involvement with the Valpo Surf Project, none of the participants had ever surfed and less than half had basic swimming competency, but none were strong swimmers.

What about aspects of surfing do you feel is the most beneficial for these kids?

At the forefront, surfing is the primary tool for engaging our students and giving them an outlet to be active, experience something beyond the few blocks of their neighborhood, and give them something to focus on to stay out of trouble. Through surfing, participants are cultivating social bonds with one another, self-determination and respect, perseverance, and problem solving skills that come with learning any new skill. Moreover, we think that these types of character traits aren’t confined to the lineup but can be applied to their experience in the classroom, a job, or life in general.

Group Beach Clean Old.jpg A group of students with Directors Wiley and Henry after a long beach clean

What kinds of changes have you seen in the participants of your program compared to those who have not participated?

After a year of involvement in the program, we’ve seen marked improvement in a number of ways. Our kids’ grades in their English classes have soared. We’ve seen a whole new level of confidence and stoke in the ocean; when we first started surf classes, some of the participants were terrified to even get in and now they’re complaining that the waves are too small. But most importantly, we’ve seen a whole new level of commitment to bettering their communities and environment. The best example of this was in December when one our students, after a number of beach cleans with the VSP, suggested that we bring that type of service to the streets of their neighborhood as well as the beaches half an hour outside of the city. The student, Jesus Miranda, spearheaded the Limpiando Mi Barrio project, and planned an initiative to clean the trash-ridden streets of the neighborhood where the participants live as a Christmas present for all of the neighbors.

Cinta and Director Jon working on a worksheet during class

What’s in store for the future of the Valpo Surf Project?

Apart from the Vanpaign, our current fundraising campaign to raise money for a new van, the VSP plans to double its enrollment in 2011 to offer its services to a wider base in the community. Currently, a former volunteer, Kathryn Armstrong, is developing Photo Valpo, a photographic component to the programming we offer. The Photo Valpo initiative, which we hope to implement in late 2011 or early 2012, will offer hands on digital photography classes to our participants culminating in a final gallery exhibition in Valparaíso.

For more information on the project, check out:

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