Volume 18 • Issue 13 | August 19 - 25, 2005

Sharis Wingfield and Ariole Edwards learn to surf as part of a mentoring program started by Lower Manhattan resident Steve Larosiliere, below. Photo by Fracois Pormann/fotoportmann.com

Downtowner teaches mentors and teens to ride the waves

By Jessie Torrisi

Most people who move to Lower Manhattan look forward to escaping packed subway trains and long after-work commutes. But for Steve Larosiliere, the founder of Surf Mentor – a new sports mentoring program – his Rector St. apartment puts him even further from “the office.”

Every Saturday this July, Larosiliere could be found at Rockaway Beach in Queens, surrounded by iridescent surfboards, cheering on kids and mentors, pushing them to face the waves.

“C’mon, stand up. You’ve got to stand up,” he is famous for shouting from the shore.

Surf Mentor is part of Stoked, a non-profit that matches kids with mentors then sends them to the slopes, the city streets, or the beach to tackle a new sport together. This year, Larosiliere brought 25 pairs together. The experiment was largely declared a success, and next year, he’ll work with six times as many kids, running programs here and in L.A.

For this first run of Surf Mentor, the kids are black, from lower- and middle-class New York families. The instructors are diehards who’ve come to Rockaway by way of Indonesia, India and L.A. The mentors are mostly white and college-educated – marketers, moneymakers, graphic designers from all over.

“What excites me is taking a bunch of Crayolas and throwing them across the action sports industry – making it more colorful,” Larosiliere says.

The twist of Surf Mentor is this. Because neither kid nor grown-up has a clue how to do what they are about to, they are more likely to let go of normal peer-mentor roles and interact as equals.

Larosiliere hopes kids and mentors will emerge with a newfound love of the sea. But the point is that they discover each other.

On the first day of Surf Mentor, Sharis Wingfield, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, stared at the Quicksilver boards and baby waves with worry and anticipation. Her mentor Sally Barnes, 28, an Australian with a sunny disposition, stood nearby.

Most Saturdays at 9 a.m., Sharis would be just waking up, easing into a day of MTV, college applications and calls to friends. Sally would still be asleep under her midtown Manhattan sheets.

But on this Saturday, by 9 a.m., Sharis and Sally had passed the Queens-Midtown tunnel, slathered on sunscreen, and gotten past the awkward getting-to-know-you stage.

By 10 a.m., when the lifeguards arrived, they’d gone through a few dry runs. “Paddle, paddle, here it comes… Pop up,” the instructors called.

Then, it was time to try it in the water. The two got tumbled and tossed but the looks on their faces were more pleasure than panic.

Nearby, Ariole Edwards, whose dad wanted her to do something physical this summer, struggled, careening on her belly ‘til a wave slammed her sideways. (Her mentor, wearing a “Just Done It!” t-shirt, recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.)

Most noticeable were David and Pascal Nambouka, twin brothers from Gabon. With wild Afros and matching swim trucks, they’re something to see. Larosiliere met them through a center for children whose parents have terminal illnesses; he’s taken them on as permanent mentees. He’s waiting to see when they’ll open up not just to the ocean but to others.

Larosiliere asks the group what the biggest thing they’ve accomplished is. “We only have a couple weeks. So I’m making you guys talk. I’m forcing the conversation,” he explains.

For Sharis, it was having survived middle school in a rough New York neighborhood. For Sally, it was moving here from Australia, leaving behind everything she’d known.

For Larosiliere, the answer may well be starting Stoked. A few years ago, not long after he bought his first snowboard, his marketing company started slipping. He had been a mentor and started thinking hard about what happens to kids from single-parent homes.

Over the next year, he consulted with personal coaches, slept on friends’ couches, and locked in on Selema Masekela, one of the few blacks in action sports, as his most likely ally. Fifty unreturned phone calls and a last ditch trip to L.A. later, Masekela was on board. Sponsors like Zoo York, Hewlett Packard and ESPN were starting to show interest too.

As Larosiliere gets his dream company up and running, he’s been doing marketing consulting to make ends meet. In the coming year, Stoked will employ Larosiliere and one other employee. When they’re not surfing or snowboarding, the two will be focused on fundraising and program development, making sure that as Stoked expands, its soul remains the same.

Now, more than ever, Larosiliere believes in taking risks. On the beach, his confidence is contagious.

Sharis and Sally cheer each other on. Once, they almost make it to shore without falling. “The highlight of the day was standing up for like five seconds,” Sharis says. “But it felt like forever, that rush.”

Larosiliere, too, is stoked. “I gave up a company, I gave up my last steady income job, an apartment, a relationship. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says.

The key in surfing, as in life, is to feel steady when the wave comes.


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