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The Wahine Project gets girls into the water to get over their fears BY MELISSA DUGE SPIERS ionne Ybarra, the Montereybased founder of the Wahine Project, starts each day at the crack of dawn, calling in favors: Which volunteer can drive girls to surf class? Which donor can bequeath some new wetsuits? A mother of four boys, the youngest of whom is barely a year old, she prepares her family for the day ahead and readies herself to conduct “the orchestra,” as she calls it: the volunteers, family, sponsors, advisors, and friends who “fit like puzzle pieces to make Wahine run.” The resulting symphony is a nonprofit that empowers girls in under-served communities to brave the ocean and learn to surf. For Ybarra, who grew up in East Salinas, the ocean was off-limits financially, logistically, and experientially. Visits were limited to once a year on the Fourth of July, when her mother would advise her not to go out into the waves or she would “fall off the shelf.”

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That warning kept her out of the surf for the first three decades of her life, until she forced herself to overcome what had by that time become a deeply rooted fear: learning to swim. By 40, she was surfing. Her first surfing experience was so exhilarating, Ybarra immediately knew she wanted to help girls like her younger self “who would otherwise not have access to the resources that would allow them to surf.” She was sure that facing their fears in, of, and through the water would encourage them—as it had her—to tackle larger obstacles throughout life. Conceived of and founded in 2010, the Wahine Project soon attracted donors, sponsors, volunteers, and instructors. Today, it has served 700 girls between the ages of 7 and 17 and has outposts as far away as the Philippines. Participants get to know each other, themselves, and their larger environment and learn to grapple with fears (whether social, mental or physical) through water-sports conditioning and

ocean recreation activities, surf lessons, excursions, lectures, and field trips. The Project aims to reach girls who do not have access to the ocean (or to surfing gear or instructors), and admit everyone who wants to partake, with programming including clinics, camps, regular monthly meet-ups, and classes for everyone from MiniWahines (5-7 year olds) and Girl Scouts to women and boys, for whom there is a summer camp. Scholarships and donations keep the programs open to everyone, despite ability to pay, even on trips like a recent SoCal surf safari. Encouraging the girls who are “struggling with overcoming fears is the best part of my job because I really know what it feels like,” Ybarra says. Not only does she understand their fear of the water, she can also “walk the walk” in ways both personal and professional. From the outset, the Wahine Project has encountered small pockets of resistance. Ybarra says that one outspoken critic,

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Monterey Waves Spring 2016 Volume1.2  
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