Sunset Beach junior guards seek life preserver

The Sunset Beach Junior Lifeguard program can keep catching waves along the shore, as long as they're headed out of town.

The group has taught youngsters the basics of lifesaving for more than 20 years but now neighbors and the Sunset Beach Community Assn. are saying it's time for the program to move along.

During the process of annexation to Huntington Beach in 2010, the Sunset Beach Community Assn. asked the city to discontinue the program. The two groups agreed to a written agreement that stated the city "shall not enter into an [sic] new agreement for any existing Junior Lifeguard Program on Sunset Beach."

The group's permit with the county expired at the end of 2012 and now members are hoping to find a loophole — or a few friendly faces within the Huntington Beach leadership — to help them out.

"City Council needs to rescind that motion on the [memorandum of understanding]," said Larry Jacklin, director of the Sunset Beach Junior Lifeguards.

The issue stems from an effort in 2010 by resident June Driscoll and other community members who gathered more than 100 signatures from people who thought the junior lifeguard program was becoming too big for the beach and wanted a change.

"We never said the program wasn't good or think it wasn't great for kids to be in a junior lifeguard program," said Driscoll, who has lived in Sunset Beach for nearly 11 years. "We just said it has gotten too big for our community and that it needs to relocate."

Community members then brought the petition before the community association, who then showed it to the City Council, SBCA President Mike Van Voorhis said.

"I don't like to go back on my word," said Councilman Joe Carchio, who was mayor when the agreement was negotiated. "I am willing to have these guys integrate with [the Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguard] program, but they don't want to do that. They want their program to be separate because it's all about money."

Another element preventing the lifeguard program from continuing is a Sunset Beach Local Coastal Plan that prohibits businesses from operating on the beach, said Phyllis Maywhort, secretary to the board that oversees the LCP.

Jacklin said that though the Sunset Beach Junior Lifeguard program has a business license and is not a nonprofit, the rules do not apply until the new plan is approved.

Van Voorhis disagrees with that interpretation, saying until the new plan is approved, the old LCP bylaws are still in effect.

California Junior Lifeguard Programs CEO James Balok, who runs the programs in Sunset Beach and Newport Beach, said his business offers parents and their children a place to stay active.

"They'll learn something that they've never learned before," Balok said. "There are people that struggle at first because of their swimming abilities, and five years later they become lifeguards and they're offered scholarships for water polo. We give kids a second chance that other programs won't."

The 21-year-old program has been the place children go to when they can't pass the standards set by the Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguards, Balok said.

Huntington Beach requires junior lifeguards to swim four laps in a high school pool in 1:50 while the Sunset Beach program has a less strict time of 2:30.

"You do 1:51 at the city program, you know what they do? 'See ya,'" Balok said. "If they don't pass our tryout, we sit down and talk to them."

The junior lifeguard program has reached out to other agencies, but none has been willing to take them in, Jacklin said.

"Bolsa Chica and the Huntington Beach State beaches aren't interested in us because they run their own junior lifeguard program," he said. "The city of Seal Beach isn't interesting in entertaining us using their beach space because they also run their own junior lifeguard program. We have to stay and our only option is to stay in Sunset Beach."

Twitter: @acocarpio

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