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Street kids get lessons in life at surf school

In Muizenberg Beach, near Cape Town, surfer Gary Kleynhans teaches poor kids discipline, respect, and how to ride the waves like a champ.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2008

Surfacing: Philip Nsodi, an orphan, learns to surf at Muizenberg Beach, Cape Town.

Danna Harman

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Muizenberg Beach, South Africa

They would just sit there on the beach, every day, watching, says South African surfer Gary Kleynhans.

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Then, one day, he called them over. "I could see from their enthusiasm that they wanted to try," he says. "And I thought, 'Let me give these kids a go.'"

And so he started free surfing classes for the street kids of this windswept beach town. Word spread fast, and six little students became 10, then 20. "It was total chaos, Man," shrugs Mr. Kleynhans. "My boards were getting smashed. The kids couldn't swim. Chaos. But I got into it. Actually, I loved it."

Seven years later, Gary's Surf School on Muizenberg Beach has the classes under control and can boast of a generation of black, underprivileged kids who have not only learned to ride waves, but also picked up some important life skills – discipline, respect, and punctuality – along the way.

"In the water, the playing field is open," says Kleynhans, a tanned man in flip-flops who somehow easily alternates between waxing poetic and tearing up the waves, and cuffing his charges on the back of the head. "In the water there is no level of society. It's about ability and perseverance.... It's a neutralizer. It's awesome."

From drop-out to surfing champ

Born in the southern African country of Angola, John De Castro's parents split up when he was 3, and his father took the 10 children to look for a better life in neighboring Namibia. That did not work out. Four years later, they came to South Africa and settled here, in a two-room apartment in Muizenberg.

At first, the boy stayed inside all the time. He did not speak the language, did not have friends, did not fit in. Soon, though, he started staying out all the time, sleeping outside, roaming around. There were so many kids at home, he says, no one even noticed. "I used to hang out with gang kids. We played at the arcade and picked up girls and did mixed-up things." Soon, at age 14, he dropped out of school.

Sometimes, sitting around on the beach, he would gaze out at the surfers: white kids in wet suits, bobbing in the distance. It was something that had nothing to do with him, he thought, but he liked watching anyway. He watched and watched for eight years. And then, as he walked by Gary's Surf School one day, the manager called him over.

"I never asked Gary why he taught us," says Mr. De Castro today, a muscular young man of 19, and one of South Africa's up-and-coming surfing champions. "But I guess it was just out of kindness."

By the end of his first class, De Castro was standing, riding a wave, his knees slightly buckled in, as Kleynhans remembers it, a massive smile on his face. "It was a great feeling," says De Castro. "I was so excited. I had not expected it to be so good."

Two month ago De Castro made the semifinals at Western Province Long Board Championships, coming in third. His brother Nobel, meanwhile, who followed in his footsteps, came in second at the 2005 South Africa Long Board Championships.

Another of Kleynhans's first protégés, Kwezi Qika, is a national surfing sensation – having become the first black South African to be accepted to the national team, The Springboks.