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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Surfacing: Philip Nsodi, an orphan, learns to surf at Muizenberg Beach, Cape Town.
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    Not just surfer dudes: Gary Kleynhans, who gives free classes and a dose of discipline to street kids, and protegé, John De Castro (right), at Muizenberg beach, Cape Town.
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They would just sit there on the beach, every day, watching, says South African surfer Gary Kleynhans.

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."

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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.

"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."

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."

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