Using Surfing To Build Community

Words: Desiree MelendezPhotography: Rebecca Venezia & Emily Winiker

desiree high five

It’s 19 degrees and still dark out, but we’re up and getting ready. I pull on my thickest wetsuit, force on booties, stretch on gloves, and drape a neoprene hood over my head. At 6am, on one of the coldest days of the winter, you’d hardly expect anyone to have left the safety of their bed covers but I can already see familiar specs of black, bobbing up and down on the surf cam. Rushing out the door, surfboard in hand, the slick ice on the ground immediately reminds me to slow down. Three blocks later I’ve adjusted to the cold but I’m still not prepared for the shock of the first wave as it crashes over me. The brain freeze that ensues is ten times worse than any of the 7-Eleven slurpees you’ve ever slurped in your life. Pull it together. Keep paddling. There’s another set coming and you don’t want to get caught on the inside. On the outside, I finally catch my breath. As I’m waiting for the next few waves, I look around and notice the slow descent of fluffy snowflakes. Simultaneously, a thick gray sets in and I can only see a few feet in front of me. Suddenly, I’m battling for chest high waves in a snow globe. The feeling is surreal to say the least and I’m thrilled. I’d stay out all day, welcoming frostbite, if my watch wasn’t already shouting at me to rush off to work.

Desiree & Mentee

kid surfing

What drives you? What gets you stoked? Is it the anticipation of a new phone being released, a new movie premier, that restaurant opening, or the next late night party? City life seems to be driven around consumption, but for so many of us here in Rockaway, it’s a die-hard commitment to the ocean. There’s no feeling more empowering than riding down the face of a wave, accomplishing something you’ve never done before, and realizing your potential is limitless. That is why STOKED mentoring is bringing young adults from all over the city to surf at Rockaway Beach. STOKED is an organization that believes action sports can teach teens essential skills for success. As income inequality continues to widen the opportunity gap, STOKED is determined to change the fact that a child’s family income is now the greatest predictor of how successful that child will be as an adult. STOKED pairs professionals, entrepreneurs, and creatives who are passionate about action sports with the underserved youth from communities throughout the city, who are often in serious need of positive role models. Most importantly, it creates a nurturing environment where kids learn to believe in themselves despite the challenges they face.


mentoring hanging out Beach 67th street is a surf break punctuated by brightly colored tents and umbrellas that mark the many surf schools in the area. Weaving my way through the businesses on a bustling Saturday morning, I arrived at a unique camp advertising nothing other than the simple yet powerful declaration, STOKED. As with most surf lessons, I expected to meet my student, go over the basics and start instructing in the water. Our Program Manager, Hannah Tall, had a lot more in store for us. “The theme of the day is community,” she declared, kicking off the opening circle tradition. We all went around and introduced ourselves by sharing one thing we’ve learned from STOKED and the overall action sports community. “Try new things.” “Fake it till you make it.” “Pain is gain.” “Don’t let your fear stop you.” “How to be more social.” Those were just a few of the answers that resounded from the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere. The sparkle of a small set in the distance rolled under the lid of my baseball cap into my periphery. But, before we could head into the surf, Hannah announced, it’s time to “pay for your waves.” She called a small boy into the center of the circle, who seemed to shrink as he approached, the rather tall Hannah. “Harry wants to go to the Street League Skateboarding Competition,” she announced. “So, how are you going to earn your ticket and pay for your waves today, Harry?” I was impressed when he spoke up to say he was going to stand up on his board at least once to earn a spot on the awesome trip that was being offered as a reward to all summer program participants. I immediately recognized the genius of setting small but meaningful goals as a crucial element to success in surfing and in life. Harry then joined the rest of us, in picking up trash to pay for our waves, just because it was the right thing to do. I was struck. If all the adults who regularly travel to Rockaway Beach to surf, joined in this practice, we’d significantly improve the quality of our beaches, which tend to suffer during peak season. However, here these kids were, who travel out once a week, improving the quality of living for the entire Rockaway community.

deon and kids chilling


One spotless beach later and it was time to do some land practice. The mentors broke down the basics including pop-ups, positioning on the board and surf etiquette. After an extended amount of preparation, including a whole spiritual aspect I hadn’t considered before, we set off into the water. “It’s such a great opportunity for me to get to do things like this for free.” The words my mentee nonchalantly shared, as I was about to push her into a wave, caught me off guard yet again. There was something simultaneously so right and so wrong about them. Surf lessons typically range from $65-$100 for around a 90 minute to a 2 hour session. This will keep the majority of kids from getting involved in the sport. It’s a shame, as surfing has so drastically changed my life for the better. Yet, thanks to STOKED, a new opportunity emerged for my mentee who had the winning combination of a killer attitude and natural talent. Not only did she stand up on her very first wave, she insisted on trying and succeeding at paddling into her own waves. By the end of the 2 hours, she had achieved what takes some students months. I’m not sure which one of us was more stoked. When I asked my student how she found out about STOKED, she replied, “I was walking down the hallway at school and I saw a poster of someone snowboarding and it said ‘this could be you’. I had always done afterschool programs so I thought, why not and signed up.” More than just a brilliant marketing ploy, STOKED believes in changing kids perspectives. It’s a four year program that in addition to surfing, includes snowboarding sessions, an after school skate program where teens also learn to build their own skateboards, and more. I was surprised by how on board the kids were with what I considered to be a fairly regimented program for such a free sport, but by the end of it, many of them were begging to participate in the closing circle ceremony.


tent I also learned that the intensity of this participation often carries on for years. An older youth who completed the full program now had his own surfboard tucked under his arm, ready to mentor others like him. The other mentors were equally enthused. It was no surprise to find a few of the nicest guys from the lineup had also showed up to teach. Todd explained, “it’s great because you get to watch them grow up.” It was clear that mentors put in serious effort and took pride in seeing the teens succeed.


mentee smiling At closing ceremony Harry proclaimed, “I stood up on 13 waves.” The circle exploded with kudos. We then continued around. “I want to give Kudos to Jasper for having patience.” “Thank you Hannah for always feeding me.” Congratulations Grace on starting college.” These were just a few of the responses that resounded from the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere. Beka, the volunteer photographer for the day summed it up nicely, “I haven’t seen that many smiles in a long time! It was so refreshing.” It may mean the end of summer but I can’t wait to participate in the winter sessions. I’m excited to see the same kids succeed on the slopes and in the classroom the way they killed it on the beach that day. What are you stoked for? STOKED has been mentoring low-income students since 2005 and is looking forward to another ten years of success!

Desiree Melendez hails from Queens, New York; an environment that has undoubtedly played a key role in the formation of her entrepreneurial spirit. She graduated with a B.A. in International Studies from Vassar College in 2013. Since then, her inclination towards alternative forms of education and her constant drive for new opportunities, have led her to become an apprentice at Enstitute. Her experiences have been in event coordination, marketing, public relations and social media management. Desiree is passionate about storytelling, community building and addicted to new perspective. When not in the office she takes advantage of every opportunity to travel, snowboard down the mountains of Vermont or surf Rockaway whenever there are waves.