Surfing builds confidence for teens in low-income housing


Celine Rosales stepped into the water at Bolsa Chica State Beach, suspicious of what was lurking beneath the surface of the chilly gray-blue ocean. Wearing a black wetsuit, the 13-year-old was scared but ready to take the plunge for her first surfing lesson.

“Oh, my gosh, I’m going to die,” Celine said she thought as she climbed onto the surfboard with the help of a volunteer.

Photos: Surfing builds confidence for teens


Celine, of Norwalk, was there with other teenagers as part of a college-awareness program run by the nonprofit Orange County Community Housing Corp.

Housing and surfing may seem an unlikely match, but officials at the nonprofit realized that children of families in its 225 low-income units needed more than a roof. From that, the SteppingUP program was born.

“We know housing alone will not break the cycle of poverty,” said Nora Mendez, deputy director of the organization.

About 130 at-risk youth, from grades seven to 12, participate in the program, which organizers say isn’t only about higher education but also about instilling a curiosity in teens for a world beyond their neighborhoods.

The program has three components — college awareness, tutoring and family mentoring — and each student is assigned an advisor who helps with college planning. There are also trips, ranging from a screening of a musical to a day at a horse ranch or the beach.

Monica Cardenas, director of SteppingUP, sees surfing as more than a joy ride for these teens. “It’s important because it’s building confidence,” she said, “and it’s building courage.”

In fact, many of the students who took to the waves recently said the same thing: They didn’t know they could do it.

Jennifer Diaz may be proof that building confidence through new experiences helps out with the school part.

The Garden Grove teen joined the French club, key club, track and cross country in high school to be involved in new experiences. Yet a seemingly simple task such as filling out a college application or applying for student aid was foreign to her, and no one in her family, which is primarily Spanish-speaking, knew how to help.

“I didn’t know anything about college, to tell you the truth,” she said. So with the help of a SteppingUP advisor, Jennifer navigated the college bureaucracy.

She said she still can’t believe that next month she’ll be a freshman at Cal State Fullerton — the first in her family to attend college. Standing a few feet away from the water, she was navigating another hurdle: learning to surf.

“I’m all for it,” she said. “I thought that surfing lessons were only in Hawaii.”

Stephanie Dufour, who owns a Huntington Beach insurance company and works with the community housing group, was impressed with the new surfers. “They all say it’s harder than it looks, but they’re not afraid to try it,” she said.

That’s the attitude Cardenas wants students to carry throughout life.

Photos: Surfing builds confidence for teens

“I really think they learned how to take a good risk … not being afraid to try something new,” she said.

Celine said she was proud that she was able to shift from paddling on the surfboard to rising to her knees. “It felt like I accomplished something,” she said.

And the next time she got on the surfboard, she didn’t walk gingerly into the water. She ran.