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“This club is very special because we’re giving students the opportunity to join together with their peers to take advantage of our coastline’s resources,” says Jeff Smallwood, elementary educator and founder of the Salinas Surf Club. “Furthermore, it instills in their minds that they belong anywhere a wave can be found.”

Created in 2017, the Salinas Surf Club gives students an introduction to ocean culture and expands their horizons far beyond the farmlands and fields of the Salinas Valley. Smallwood, a second-grade structured English teacher at Los Padres Elementary School in East Salinas, came up with the idea with a friend who was a California state lifeguard. The Monterey-area native had been a boogie boarder and surfer since a young age and was eager to share his love of surfing with students from his school community.

Seeded with a $500 regional equity grant from CTA, Smallwood was able to rent wetsuits and make snacks to eat on the beach. That group in 2017 consisted of three instructors and four students. In 2020, the club got a $3,000 grant from Community Foundation of Monterey County and this September, the Salinas Surf Club took more than two dozen students and volunteers each to surf at Carmel Beach.

“Kids were catching waves right away,” says Smallwood, a member of Salinas Elementary Teachers Council (SETC). “It’s so much fun to see those kids ride waves. Teaching kids to surf is almost better than surfing.”

Smallwood said it took a little time for students and their parents to warm up to the idea of a surf club in Salinas – most club participants are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are learning English and do not know how to swim. Smallwood enlisted the help of fellow Los Padres teachers originally from Mexico, who enrolled their children in the club to show that the activity was safe. Though Salinas is only 10 miles away from the Pacific Ocean, many students and their families had never taken the 25-minute drive to walk on the beach and dip their toes in the water.

Salinas Surf Group

The Salinas Surf Club shreds waves in the Monterey area six times a school year, instilling in students’ minds that they belong anywhere a wave can be found.

“The Salinas Surf Club provides students with an opportunity to be part of a sport that is not very common in their community,” says Roberto Zamora, a sixth-grade dual immersion teacher at Los Padres and SETC member, who is from Michoacán, Mexico. “Students benefit from this club because Latino students are less likely to participate in school athletics. Moreover, it teaches students to be disciplined, to develop leadership skills, goal setting and risk taking. The club is crucial to our students because it bridges a gap with the Latino community.”

With enough adults in the water with lifeguard training (several lifeguards and firefighters are regular club volunteers), students learn water safety, surfing skills and how to stand up on the board.

“We put safety first but still give the opportunity for fun,” Smallwood says. “Now, we’re getting kids signed up for swim lessons, kayaking trips and visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.”

The club goes surfing six times a school year – once a month outside of winter. Smallwood says they also now offer summer scholarships through the club’s sister surf program, The Wahine Project (thewahineproject.org).

“We want to make sure every single kiddo knows they have a place and deserve to be there just like anybody else,” he says. “And it helps if there’s a wave, too.” —Jeff Smallwood, Salinas Elementary Teachers Council

Surf club members are separated into skill-based groups, so students can go at their own pace and comfort level – some ride surfboards, others boogie boards, and some enjoy spending time getting used to being in the ocean. Smallwood says the volunteer instructors are all veteran surfers teaching real techniques to their learners.

“They’re getting good lessons,” he says. “These kids are further along than I was at their age.”

In a sport where most surfers are white, a big part of the Salinas Surf Club is introducing these Latino students to the wonders of the ocean and affirming that they belong there.

“We want to make sure every single kiddo knows they have a place and deserve to be there just like anybody else,” he says. “And it helps if there’s a wave, too.”

For Smallwood, the club is a labor of love. Building the club from the ground up took great dedication and effort but was completely worth it to be able to share surfing with a new generation of little shredders.

“It’s the one thing that makes my profession complete. I think I’d burn out without it,” he says. “I get to bring a part of what I love to my students.”

Smallwood says SETC is a big club supporter (“they backed me up when we tried to make this work”), with fellow educators volunteering with everything from driving students to and from the beach to taking photos of their outings. He appreciates all the volunteers who help make the magic happen.

Smallwood’s message for educators: Share your passions with your students.

“Don’t be afraid to teach them those things you value. They love to learn the things you love. It’s where the best learning takes off.”

Follow the Salinas Surf Club on Facebook at @SalinasSurfClub and Instagram at @Salinas_Surf_Club, where you can also contact Smallwood about starting a surf club in your community. Photos by James Craig, Salinas Elementary Teachers Council.

The Discussion 1 comment Post a Comment

  1. Li Williams says...

    Our community has embraced this outstanding program. We are grateful to Mr. Jeff Smallwood for providing the opportunity for our youth. It is bringing together families and organizations from across Monterey County. Mr. Smallwood is to commended for the time and effort he has given over the past six years. Mr. Smallwood is a shining example of the difference one teacher can make in the classroom, school, and community.

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