City of Los Angeles, Recreation and Parks Aquatics Division

Southern California is home to surfing culture and water sports, but these hobbies aren’t accessible to those who can’t afford the gear, lessons and transportation. There’s also the matter of receiving instruction in swimming and water safety.

To address this inequity, the Los Angeles Aquatics Division has created two new open-water programs for kids — a Learn to Surf program and a Learn to Kayak program. Both are also available in adaptive versions for children with different mental and physical abilities. The Learn to Surf program launched in the summer of 2022, and the Learn to Kayak launched in the summer of 2023.

Funding from the LA 28 foundation, an initiative created ahead of the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games, allows the aquatics division to offer the programs for free or for a sign-up cost of $10.

All the equipment and staffing costs are covered, so the team can focus on just running the programs, says Melanie Escamilla, aquatic director and citywide aquatics supervisor in Los Angeles.

Swimming in new waters

The Learn to Surf and Learn to Kayak programs serve children ages seven to 17, many of whom may not have the ability to participate in these aquatics activities due to lack of access or even fear of open water. To make sure that kids would be prepared for activities in this environment, the aquatics division collaborated with open water lifeguards and subject matter experts to craft a curriculum.

Each session includes 20 hours of instruction for either surfing or kayaking. It begins at the pool, where staff can evaluate participants’ skill levels and get them comfortable performing water activities in a more controlled environment. If an instructor assesses that a child can’t swim at the level needed to safely participate, they direct the student to the swim lesson program first.

During the instruction, participants are taught about ocean and lake safety, what they might encounter in an open body of water, and water conservation.

All of the gear needed to participate — from surfboards and kayaks to wetsuits and tee shirts — is provided with funding from the LA 28 Foundation. This allows access to children of all income levels.

Reaching the community

In the beginning, Escamilla says, the team faced challenges reaching the target audience with information about these programs. Her team worked to target the marketing and outreach for the programs in underserved populations, such as the BIPOC community and families with children who need adaptive swim programs. They promoted the programs on social media and sent emails to families who had signed up for adaptive programs in the past to let them know when new programs were open for registration.

“Once people found out about it, we had a lot of newer people coming in, and they were just very grateful for the program and for it being offered locally,” Escamilla says.

When students are ready to take their skills out of the pool, the programs provide transportation from the pool facility to the beach. The adaptive Para Surfing program meets on Saturdays to allow for parents to be on site to assist.

The programs are well-received by the community. Once registration opens, Escamilla said it fills up within an hour.

“A lot of participants in the surfing program continue to enroll because they enjoy it,” she adds.

Enough students have returned to prompt her team to look into a partnership with USA Surfing, with the hope of creating a team so kids who have learned to surf can continue to use their skills. This also would open up more space for new participants to take advantage of the lessons.

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