Haakenson: Surfing across borders

Surfing certainly has become an international sport, but Uganda?

You might think finding a surfer from Uganda would be about as easy as finding one from Siberia, but there he was a few weeks ago, right there off 22nd Street in Newport Beach.

His name is Wasswa, he's 9 years old, and he's an AIDS orphan from Uganda in East Africa.

"He got up and surfed all the way in on his first wave," said his adoptive mother, Roxanne Robbins.

Robbins admitted that a few days earlier Wasswa was in Del Mar for the three-day surf camp Walking on Water, so he wasn't totally a newbie. But Wasswa's surf lesson that day, with the help of Scott Moreland and Eric Piper, was a miracle in itself.

The story begins with Jim and Gwen Johnson, who call Corona del Mar home but whose influence stretches beyond any borders. Robbins and Wasswa spent a few days in the Johnsons' home earlier this summer during their trip to Southern California from their home in Uganda.

The Johnsons' daughter, Melissa, met Robbins in Washington D.C., where they both worked. Melissa Johnson worked in the Bush Administration and Robbins worked in corporate public affairs in the wireless industry. They met while they both attended a weekly women's Bible study at the White House.

"[Jim and Gwen] were returning from a trip to Africa," Robbins remembered. "It was about six years ago, and they were in their 80s then. Melissa wanted me to meet them for coffee along with a few of the ladies from our group."

It turned into much more than coffee.

"I was so inspired by Jim and Gwen's energy at their ages, and their commitment to serving people around the world," Robbins said. "They were doing building projects, which is a way you can connect groups and serve overseas. I decided to follow their example."

Did she ever.

Robbins went to Uganda on a five-week volunteer trip. She came back to the U.S. at the conclusion of the trip, but stayed only three months before going back.

"The five weeks turned into five years," Robbins said, noting the five-year anniversary of her move there comes in September.

Robbins created her own non-profit organization, "Tukutana," which means "working together with hope" in Swahili. She said Tukutana is a "Christian organization that serves orphans and vulnerable children and their caregivers."

She hadn't worked long in Uganda before she met Wasswa.

"I met him in his roadside village," Robbins said. "I got to know him each time we'd stop at that particular location. I would spend time with the children, playing with them and gradually after several visits learned that he was an orphan, a double orphan. He literally had no one that could take care of him."

Both of Wasswa's parents died of HIV, as did Wasswa's twin brother, Kato, who contracted the disease during childbirth. Wasswa tested negative for HIV. Wasswa does have a grandmother in the village, but she could not take care of him.

"She was working in the fields but not earning enough to feed him," Robbins said. "He was surviving on a handful of peanuts a day. He was extremely malnourished."

Robbins took Wasswa to her home, like she does with so many children, for medical treatment. But this case was different.

"His grandmother and I wanted him to get help but she knew if he returned to the village he wouldn't survive," Robbins said of Wasswa, who was 4 at the time. "She wasn't capable of caring for him. She's been very involved in the adoption process and went with us to court for legal guardianship."

Wasswa's grandmother, Jajja Peddy, lives about four hours away from Wasswa and Robbins now, but Wasswa visits her several times a year.

Now 9, Wasswa, which means "first-born twin," is attending Heritage International School in Kasanga, Uganda, not far from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala, where Tukutana is based.

The trip to Southern California was a chance for Robbins to meet with some of the ministries that donate to her organization.

"Our organization is fully funded by private donors, churches and organizations, so we visit our ministry partners all over the U.S.," Robbins said.

Robbins also thought it would be nice to visit the Johnsons in Corona del Mar, and as long as they were near the beach, why not try surfing?

"It was good and I had fun," said Wasswa, who speaks English well. "It was my fifth time in the States, but my first to Southern California. Surfing was good, but the water was cold!"

For more information on Tukutana, go to http://www.tukutana.org.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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