Elementary and middle-school kids from some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods are learning how to ‘hang 10,’ as well as other lessons: self-confidence, self-control and determination.  These children, from low-income families, are riding the wave of the L.A. Surf Bus, but the eight-week program that provides gear, transportation and lunch is edging close to the brink of bankruptcy.

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While the morning air’s still brisk, about four-dozen boys and girls line up to climb aboard a yellow school bus.  It’s dubbed the “L-A Surf Bus.”  Park Counselor, Damian Heartfield checks names off a list.

“Curtis, Curtis,” calls Heartfield, “Curtis…”

Curtis and his campmates are also neighbors.  They live in Nickerson Gardens in the Watts section of South Los Angeles. 

Bounty Hunter Bloods from Watts in group shot at Nickerson Gardens in Watts.

On location at Nickerson Gardens in Watts in fall 2012, for the music video, “William Nickerson,” by Rap artists YG Choppa and Foe Gunna Breezo. Photo: UnitedGangs.com

It’s the largest public housing development this side of the Mississippi River.  Windows and doors have bars and dirt patches substitute for green lawns.  These kids face tough life choices every day:  drugs, alcohol and gangs. 

But on the bus, on the way to the beach, they’re laughing and joking.  Nine-year-old Tyronaya Wright grabs the microphone and starts hosting her own make-believe talk show…

We’re gonna keep it moving with the ‘Nay Nay Show’,” muses Wright.

“Nay Nay” interviews the little girl sitting next to her about last week’s surfing fieldtrip.

“Did ya’ll see anything in the water,” asks Wright, “…like animals or something?” 

“Dolphins!’ exclaims the little girl.  

“Wow,” says Wright, “Dolphins!”

These types of simple pleasures are what Mary Setterholm was dreaming about when she started the non-profit organization four years ago. 

Mary Setterholm provides surf boards to the inner–city kids, who participate in her summer program, LA Surf Bus. She readies supplies at Santa Monica beach on June 30, 2008. Photo: Al Seib/Getty Images

The U.S. Surfing Champion was inspired after a middle-school aged, African-American girl who lived near Nickerson Gardens drowned at the same beach where Setterholm was teaching another group of kids how to surf. 

“I didn’t cry about that one for two years,” says Setterholm, “I just got busy.”

Setterholm says that ‘getting busy’ now includes 400 elementary to high-school aged kids from 60 different L.A. County parks.  Everyday during the summer, eight different busses load up for various beaches.  Setterholm’s for-profit surf school covers most expenses and a few outside sponsors pitch in.  But nothing substitutes for Setterholm’s one-on-one mentoring, like the tips she’s giving Vernon Warren.

“You gotta do it with a big hop,” coaches Setterholm, “like this, look!  Watch.  BOOM!  You see that?”

The brown-skin boy with wet curly hair nods his head up and down.  After riding a few waves together, the 11-year old’s hooked!

“It was the amazing thing ever! This was my first time surfing,” says Warren, “but, like… for the first time, it was alright though!”

“It takes them out of the neighborhood,” says Heartfield.

The LA Surf Bus posted this IG @surfbusfoundation in March 2017 with the caption, “We’re here to help unleash your inner ninja.” Another post reads, “The ocean is colorblind.” Photo Credit/LASurfBusFoundatio“People that got the resources, always think that it’s money.  But it’s not always money,” says Heartfield.  “‘Resources’ is time, ideas, technical support, material supplies, training, volunteering.  It’s a lot of other resources aside from money.”

Park counselor Damian Heartfield, who checked off names as kids boarded the bus, says Setterholm’s program outshines most other camp activities, because it gives the kids a chance to just be kids.  He hopes L.A. Surf bus stays on course and gets the resources it needs.

The L-A Surf Bus needs $100-thousand dollars by the end of the month, or Setterholm says she’ll have to eliminate access to hundreds of children.

Nickerson Gardens is owned and operated by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. The 1,066 unit affordable housing community in Watts offers rents adjusted to 30 percent of tenants’ incomes.