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Beyond the Water: Thriving Outside with Urban Surf 4 Kids

Our world is witnessing incredible upheaval, and Americans across the country are taking to the outdoors in search of respite from COVID-19. The Outdoor Foundation 2021 Participation Trends Report recorded that 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in the year prior, the highest participation rate ever recorded.

Being active outdoors and in green space is proven to provide countless benefits to individuals and communities, including better mental and physical health, positive youth development, and awareness and excitement for environmental stewardship.

Urban Surf 4 Kids understands these benefits all too well. The local nonprofit organization leads trauma‐informed surf therapy camps and mentorship programs that empower foster and youth who have experienced complex trauma and help them become independent adults, leaders in the community and champions for the environment.

More than Surfing

“We give kids a sense of community. We keep showing up for our kiddos as volunteers, mentors and role models. We provide a safe space in the outdoors to help them feel like children again,” Roxanne Avant, Executive Director at Urban Surf 4 Kids, said of the youth they serve.

Many of them have never been in the ocean, hiked San Diego’s mountains or even spent time in their local park prior to participating in Urban Surf 4 Kids’ programs due to various equity barriers. These barriers are defined by The San Diego Foundation’s 2020 Parks for Everyone report as obstacles that hinder a person’s ability to access green space and parks.

Urban Surf 4 Kids has connected with many children who have spent their entire childhood living In foster care and some of our kids have been displaced numerous times, sometimes up to 10 times.

For groups that face systemic barriers to outdoor access, including communities of color and under-resourced youth, subsidized and culturally appropriate outdoor programs like Urban Surf 4 Kids serve as a critical entry point to a more inclusive and accessible outdoor environment.

Roxanne shared that one of the most important aspects of Urban Surf’s work is “giving children a sense of agency where they can be seen, heard and feel included, welcomed, loved and appreciated.”

“And we do it all outside,” Roxanne emphasized. “It’s not in a courtroom, it’s not in a therapist’s office, it’s not over Zoom – it’s in these different environments where they can exhale.”

Thrive Outside Day

The Foundation’s Opening the Outdoors grant program aims to protect, connect and increase equitable access to the outdoors. The program distributed $698,000 in grants to local nonprofit organizations working to increase access to the outdoors in 2021. 

Building upon the success of Opening the Outdoors, in 2019, San Diego was selected as one of the Outdoor Foundation’s four inaugural Thrive Outside Communities. The vision for Thrive Outside is to build regional capacity through collective impact by bringing together multi-sector stakeholders for greater coordination across education, advocacy and programming. Thrive Outside San Diego engages a broad network of local organizations and partners to reverse the declining trend of outdoor engagement and empower communities to make outdoor recreation an accessible lifestyle for all.

On October 9, 2021, Urban Surf 4 Kids, a Thrive Outside San Diego network organization and two-time grant recipient of the Opening the Outdoors program, joined communities across the nation that came together to celebrate the transformative power of the outdoors for Thrive Outside Day. Participating organizations highlighted programs, events and activities empowering communities to thrive outside.

Urban Surf 4 Kids’ Hānai Mentorship Program brings together groups of foster youth and volunteer mentors to participate in monthly outdoor activities. For Thrive Outside Day, the Hānai groups visited Knott’s Berry Farm to celebrate seven months of group outings.

Most of the youth had never been on a charter bus or experienced a field trip.

Roxanne shared that Hānai in Hawaiian culture is the term for the informal adoption of someone into your family. The concept of the program is just that – to bring the children into this mentoring program and informally adopt them as part of the Urban Surf 4 Kids family.

“We’re just trying to do what we can to change the outcomes for these youth,” Roxanne emphasized.

Eliminating Barriers

More than 6,480 foster youth have been impacted by Urban Surf 4 Kids.

Urban Surf 4 Kids’ various outdoor activities not only support the social-emotional learning and development of youth experiencing extreme trauma but also transforms them into outdoor advocates. Many of the participants, once they reach 20 years of age, return to Urban Surf 4 Kids to serve as mentors and volunteers, helping other children recover from experiences like neglect, abuse and abandonment.

Roxanne underscored that having positive role models in the form of mentors that partner with each child at various Urban Surf events boosts self-esteem, confidence and promotes healthier relationships with adults in a safe, supportive space.

Outdoor youth programming and public-private partnerships such as Thrive Outside San Diego are helping to build resilient communities, a pillar of The San Diego Foundation’s Strategic Plan, by addressing equity barriers to the outdoors and creating more inclusive and accessible outdoor experiences for all.

Learn more about our Strategic Plan.

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