Hope helps Surf Bus grow

Times Staff Writer

Matthew Espy halts near ocean's edge, plants both feet in the sand, crosses his arms, furrows his brow, and refuses to proceed one step closer.

Friends skipping merrily into the shallows urge him to follow. "Come on, Matthew!"

Adults rest reassuring palms on his shoulders. "There's nothing to worry about," they promise.

But the 9-year-old is steadfast, deep in thought, tapping his foot, touching his chin, and within a moment formulates a fib he believes will exonerate him as a coward.

"It's my parents," he says. "They told me not to go in the water, so I just can't. "

But on this sunny Santa Monica morning, Matthew can and will venture into the churning surf.

He'll meet the breakers head-on and ride first on a bodyboard, then on a surfboard, after which he'll carelessly slip, "I can't wait to tell my parents!"

And his little white lie, like mist from the waves, will waft and vanish as Matthew enjoys the time of his life.

A story about conquering fears?

This is one of those. But it's also a tale that involves tragedy, passion, caring and dedication -- and the transformation of these elements into something positive and profound.

It's a day-in-the-life chronicle of Mary Setterholm, who has, through sheer will and the generosity of others, expanded her L.A. Surf Bus operation from a series of small "one-day specials" into a program that this summer is treating more than 2,000 inner-city kids each week to the thrill of riding waves.

Morning begins with a ride to the South Seas House, a historic community center in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

En route, Setterholm reveals a personal life that is a perfect storm of turmoil and tumult. She didn't know her father. Her mother was an alcoholic. She was abused by a baby sitter when she was 6; repeatedly by a priest when she was 12, and by a husband she claims stabbed her board with a screwdriver and forbade her to surf after she returned late one afternoon from the beach.

When she was 13, after coming to "hate the name Jesus" and "running away from the faith" because of clergy abuse, which has since been acknowledged by the L.A. Archdiocese, she discovered surfing as "a great escape."

From her West L.A. home she'd pedal her bike and tote her board to the beach every chance she'd get.

Setterholm, now 53 and single, graying but spry and fit, became a national amateur surfing champion at 17. Eight years ago she founded the Surf Academy in Santa Monica, which is the largest surf school in the United States.

Profits from the academy and private donations -- along with endemic support from companies such as Body Glove and Quiksilver -- help fund and equip the nonprofit L.A. Surf Bus operation, which partners with youth groups and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

The program has become so expansive, though, that Setterholm cannot afford to make it through the season. But this has become an annual refrain and somehow she manages.

Last year, for example, eight-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater and friends chipped in with $50,000.

Setterholm, who has a staff of about 60, started this summer $20,000 in debt and says only two-thirds of the $200,000 she'll require to hire buses and drivers is covered.

But such obstacles pale in comparison with real-life ordeals the tireless woman seems destined to continually endure.

Last summer a daughter -- one of five children -- dropped out of law school after becoming paranoid and schizophrenic. Mistrusting of everyone, she vanished and went homeless.

Setterholm spent the ensuing months searching downtown shelters, and learned recently that her daughter had landed in a psychiatric center in New York.

En route to the South Seas House, Setterholm says she had just spoken to her by phone and is working to bring her home.

Emotions course through this woman's body like high voltage, and tears well in her eyes as the topic switches to Theresa Robertson, whose tragic death got the L.A. Surf Bus rolling.

It was nine years ago, on June 24. Setterholm was teaching a surfing class south of Manhattan Beach Pier. Robertson, 12, who had come with friends from South Los Angeles was on the other side, floundering in a rip current.

"This was a defenseless girl and what the hell was going wrong?" Setterholm cries, from behind the wheel of her van. "It was so wrong that this happened and I wanted her! Damnit, she should have been in my class."

The Surf Bus took shape and gained momentum in 2003, with support from Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and Recreation and Parks.

Today, the buses alternate among more than 70 inner-city camp centers and deliver more than 300 kids a day to three coastal locations. Most are taken to the beach one day each week through August.

At the South Seas House, about 40 children are kept orderly by activities director Carlton Stubbs. That's a condition they will not violate on this special morning.

Once on the bus, though, they loosen up. Many chatter and smile. A girl in the back hoists a sheet of white notebook paper with a smiling blue stick-figure and the lettering, "We Love Surfing."

Some, however, remain quiet, as if going off to war, so foreign and daunting is the mysterious ocean.

Stubbs, who has been involved with the L.A. Surf Bus for four years, says the program offers obvious physical benefits while enabling the children "to overcome fears of swimming and to discover the calming effects of the ocean."

South of Santa Monica Pier, instructors are waiting and after a brief talk, kids wearing rash guards and with bodyboards are dashing toward the ocean. Outside waves are large, so inside whitewash is turbulent.

Therein lies Matthew Espy's primary issue. He cannot swim, yet that does not stop others like him, who are frolicking waist-deep and being closely watched.

"I can't get my hair wet!" cries one girl, who is soon totally sodden.

"It's cold!" shouts a young boy, who skids to a halt once his feet hit the water.

"No, it isn't. It's good, crazy fun," responds a boy who has just washed ashore and is trudging out for another wave.

Sarah Padua is out of control. She tumbles head over heels and emerges with a bloody nose, and proudly boasts, "This is my first bloody nose ever, and I'm 9!"

Matthew is bursting with envy and finally decides, "If it's warm I can go in. How warm is it?"

Soon he is riding waves and ultimately he's coaxed onto a surfboard, and after each ride emerges the same question: "Can I catch one more?"

The answer is always yes, because Setterholm simply cannot say no.





In action: To see video by Sachi Cunningham of the L.A. Surf Bus program, go to latimes.com/sports.

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