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Second Beach Surfers Help Teach Non-Violence to Gang Kids

Locals are teaching Providence youths how to surf this weekend, organized by the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence to teach extreme sports as a positive alternative to thrill-seeking street violence.

This weekend Second Beach was the host site to a three-day Nonviolence Surf Camp, a program aimed at teaching Providence's high-risk youth both a new sport and an alternate positive lifestyle. 

The program, now in its second year, was developed by the non-profit Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence (ISPN,) and involves three days of surf lessons and fun for kids who hail from the some of Providence's more violent neighborhoods.

Locals who've surfed these waves for years have stepped up to volunteer teaching the extreme sport and many local businesses contributed all the gear and equipment necessary for the youths to eventually stand up on the boards, from wetsuits and clothing, to the soft foam boards popular for teaching beginners.

Middletown resident Brian Sargent, 38, a local carpenter, has been surfing these waters since age 14 and has been teaching surfing with the Nonviolence Surf Camp since the beginning. He spent a good chunk of his 20-something years lifeguarding at Second Beach during summers, then traveling and surfing some of the best surfing spots around the world. His sister knew one of the lead organizers from the ISPN and connected him with the project last year.

"I've had my years out there. I've had my waves. To be able to get other kids out there who've never done this before, that's just awesome," said Sargent, adding, "When you stand up on that wave, it's one of the best feelings in the world. It's an adrenaline rush."

The 16 kids attending the weekend camp were chosen by Outreach Street Workers, a trained and dedicated team with the mission of bringing peace to the streets of Providence. 

None of the participants had surfed before and many had never seen the ocean.  

A van brought the group in from the city at 10 a.m.

By 10:15 nearly all of the kids and instructors were mere specks on the ocean's horizon, barely visible from shore.

"They're brave," one member of the street team commented.

"It goes with the whole mentality," Shayla Belanger explained.  An avid surfer, Belanger organized the first surf camp in 2009 at Second Beach as an innovative way to reach the gang members she works with at ISPN. 

The hope is that surfing can become a positive replacement for youth accustomed to thrill-seeking behavior. The program is designed to challenge participants physically and emotionally and to help kids turn addictive extreme lifestyles into extreme sports, according to ISPN's mission statement.

"Part of the way we tackle youth violence and try to reduce it, is to think outside the box," said PJ Fox, Director of Training and Special Events at the institute.

Many of the kids rode waves out to the sand in the first hour.  "The fact that they're just standing up on the boards is hilarious," Fox said.

 "We're really trying to introduce kids to other things that are not going on in the city," Ajay Benton explained. 

Benton, one of the first ISPN street workers, walked away from gang life after losing a friend to street violence. "We open the program up to kids we have relationships with.  This is not something a lot of kids in the inner city get to see.  I'm pretty sure these kids will talk about this and they won't forget it."

Sargent, who still surfs several times a week, easily sees the connection between nonviolence and surfing. "I don't care what kind of day I've had. If it was stressful or I'm feeling upset about something, all I have to do is step out of my car at the beach, stand there looking at the waves, feel toes in the sand, and it all just melts away."

Belanger handled the fundraising for the weekend's festivities, which are dependent on contributions from businesses and local surf shops such as Elemental Surf and Skate, this year's top sponsor.  "Tons of people in the community are here and they just brought their boards and equipment. It has been great so far."

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