4-H surf clubs and camps promote environmental stewardship and physical activity

July 15, 2014
girl surfing
Sam Strom, a 4-H surf club member, helps Abigail Marks learn to surf at a camp in Brookings. (Photo by Dennis Knauert)
girl on paddleboard
Volunteer Luke Mathison teaches Tyrza Lamma to stand up on a paddleboard. (Photo by Michelle Carrillo)

GOLD BEACH, Ore. – More than a dozen teens and their instructors don wetsuits to plunge into the frothy churn of the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach. They walk their boards into the surf until they stand waist-deep in the water. Then they lie stomach-down on their surfboards and paddle until they spot the first breaking waves.

These youth are members of the Tsunami Surfers 4-H Club, organized by the Oregon State University Extension Service's 4-H youth development program in Curry County. Another 4-H surf club, Borderline Surfers, rides the waves 30 miles south in Brookings. Together, these clubs are part of the 4-H Surfing Outdoor Stewardship Program, which aims to introduce kids to a sport that not only builds their physical fitness but also helps them develop stronger relationships with the ocean and their communities.

"It's powerful to watch youth become more aware and connected to the ocean after they spend a few hours in the waves," said Michelle Carrillo, 4-H youth educator in Curry County. "I've seen club members become more engaged citizens, volunteering on their own initiative for ocean stewardship projects like beach cleanups and participating in community events such as the Port Orford Water Festival."

Throughout the year, club members participate in service activities that maintain healthy watersheds for their community and promote water safety. For the last two years, Tsunami Surfers have been surveying a stretch of beach in front of the Curry County Fairgrounds to see if there has been a change in trash washing ashore from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It's part of a coast-wide effort in which people are helping the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collect data and document what they find.

"They're getting the opportunity to be citizen scientists and to contribute to real research," Carrillo said. "We bring GPS units and cameras to record all of the debris as we pick it up. So far, we’ve collected crab pots, plastic bags, bottles, tires and other plastic scraps that have washed up on the beach. It’s our job to categorize what we find according to size and then send in our findings to NOAA."

The 4-H surfing program, which is for youth in grades 4-12 in Curry County, also teaches kids about water safety. Raised in small rural communities, youth in Curry County have limited access to swimming pools and swim lessons, but are surrounded by beaches and rivers. The program, which also provides kayaks and stand up paddleboards, serves as one of the only ways for youth to safely learn about the hazards of the ocean while under the supervision of trained lifeguards and one-on-one instructors.

In addition to the two clubs, a key part of the 4-H surfing program is its summer camps. The first summer surf camp, back in 2010, was the brainchild of Dave Lacey, a parent and surfer who volunteers with the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes ocean stewardship. A dozen camps have reached over 250 youth.

During the two-day camps, youth receive an early morning safety talk, read tide tables, observe the onsite hazards to avoid, then warm up with some dry-land practice to hone their form and technique. Once given the go-ahead, youth are paired with instructors and venture into the water.

"We teach them how to paddle, how to hop up and stand up on the board. You have to be patient with them and cheer them on," said Payton Timm, 14, a member of one of the 4-H surf clubs.

After surfing for an hour, they take a break mid-morning for hands-on science activities. Participants have tested pH levels to learn about the effects of rising ocean acidity on shellfish industries that are vital to the local economy. They've also played geology games to better understand coastal erosion and the formation of sand dunes and sea stacks – features distinct to the region. Youth have made wave bottles to learn about the movements of water in the ocean and they've built mini tsunami tanks to visually conceptualize how multiple waves affect manmade structures. In evaluations, two-thirds of camp participants said they're now more interested in marine science.

After a quick snack and some hot cocoa, the new surfers and their instructors head back out for another session. At the end of each camp, youth participate in a beach-wide cleanup and then debrief.

The clubs and volunteers host local camps and surf days for youth in grades 4-12 throughout the summer. This year, for the first time ever, 4-H is also hosting an overnight surf camp for youth from around Oregon who are entering 7-12 grades. It will take place Aug. 13-16 at the Curry County Fairgrounds in Gold Beach. Cost is $100 per youth. Registration is capped at 45 and is first come, first served. Campers will be housed in the fairground’s newly remodeled beachfront 4-H dormitory. Registration ends July 18. The camp is possible because Hobie donated stand up paddleboards, and the Oregon 4-H Foundation provided funding for new gear and wetsuits. Call Carrillo at 541-247-6672 for more information or visit the website of OSU Extension in Curry County


Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Michelle Carrillo