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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.

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"Being a surfer dude is from the heart. It's pure. It's from the soul," explains Kleynhans. "But times have changed. You still get white blond hippies, but these days you also get black surfers and appreciation for them. And there are less and less bad vibes or negative energies."

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A surfer dude with tough love

A poor kid whose parents couldn't afford the registration fees for surfing tournaments, Kleynhans early on told himself that one day he would be in a position to help others overcome the obstacles of poverty.

"This world is stuffed because everyone just takes and takes and takes," says Kleynhans. "If everyone keeps taking, it's going to get worse and worse. You got to put something back in and it takes so little effort to do this."

Putting back, he notes, does not mean being a softy. He might be a groovy live-and-let-live kind of guy eager to spread the love, but he is not a guy who wants to be taken advantage of.

"I have foreign volunteers who come teach at the school, a lot of them from wealthy backgrounds," relates Kleynhans. "They were lending these kids their iPods, their cameras, cash … coming to Africa to change the world – and they got taken to the cleaners, man. I was like, 'You don't understand, these kids don't have anything. You lend these kids, who don't even have a radio, an iPod – you think you are going to see it again?!'"

Being a little tough, he continues, is actually desirable here.

"I said, 'Alright. Those who are keen, there are some rules,' " recalls Kleynhans of the early days, when he was working out of his van, and had a total of just eight boards. He insisted the kids be there early in the morning. They had to stick it out for an hour. And, for the first month, he made them go out without wetsuits.

"There they were in their shorts. Freezing. After a month the group of 20 had become six again – and those boys were not quitting," he says. A story in the local paper brought in some donations, and soon those who stuck it out were given wetsuits as presents.

But, stresses Kleynhan, his surf school is "not a handout program. No one gets anything for free."

The young surfers are expected to help out around the store and at the attached restaurant, and the more experienced ones help teach the clinics and give classes to paying customers, receiving a small stipend in return.

"We are helping kids who want to be helped," he explains. "I have done my time with handouts and I have been [used]. Kids take advantage," he says. "I used to ask them to sweep the store and they would balk: 'Why should I sweep the store?' I would be like 'Man, I just gave you a board and a wet suit for free ... you have to give back. That's the way things work in life. No one is getting stuff in life for free.' "

Self-respect; that's the answer to it all, asserts Kleynhan. "If you don't have respect, you don't have jack. No one is going to be sorry for you. No one cares."

In the real world, he stresses, if you have a job and you are late, you are going to be fired. "Kids here need to learn the same thing," he explains. He insists on punctuality. He demands they be polite to customers and look smart. "Basically we are taking them out of their society and giving them a new family – a surfing family. No one is looked upon as, like, you come from a shantytown on a road. We are all one team."