The OC Surf Club program, which two years ago was honored by the Worcester County Board of Education for its creative approach to education, has positively impacted the lives of local youths
The seventh-grade student stepped onto the stage, looked out onto the crowd, and spoke of how the code surfers follow in and out of the ocean strengthened the bond with his father. Ocean City Surf Club president Tommy Vach suddenly experienced a wave of emotion.
Surf Into Integrity, a 3-year-old youth-mentoring program formed through a partnership between a group of community-driven surfers and the afterschool academy at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin, steers impressionable teenagers in the right direction before they can explore the wrong path in life. For nine weeks each fall, students learn — and live — life lessons from the Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life, a book written by motivational speaker and former world championship surfer Shaun Tomson.
The program, which two years ago was honored by the Worcester County Board of Education for its creative approach to education, has positively impacted the lives of 54 seventh and eighth graders and their families, through lessons learned in the classroom, on the beach and in the ocean. Sometimes, the benefits students gain have emerged in unexpected yet incredibly personal ways.
“That’s always a little emotional,” Vach, 58, said while sharing the 2017 story of that student, who connected with his father in a way he likely never imagined. “The reward for us is hearing these stories and to see these children use the manners they were taught in class.”
Students arrive at class having read two chapters from Tomson’s book, which was published in 2006 but was inspired in 1998 by the Surfer’s Code Card, which featured 12 sayings the South African-born Tomson wrote on a card that all began with the words: “I will.”
Tomson donated copies of his book to Ocean City Surf Club, and club officials built the program around those lessons and the allure of surfing, which gives students the opportunity to ride waves in wet suits and on soft-top surfboards donated by K-Coast Surf Shop.
“It gives me so much satisfaction to know that I might have played a little part, perhaps, in these young students’ lives,” said Tomson, who spoke with graduates and their families via Skype during the most recent graduation ceremony in November. He challenged those graduates, like he has other students he's addressed over the years, to share their own personal code for life with him.
“The formative years for a kid are really much younger than we think. The trajectory of life is formed by high school,” said program founder Rich Brueckner, the state’s former gang and narcotics prosecutor in Salisbury who’s now in private practice in Ocean City.
“I got tired of prosecuting kids and seeing kids locked up for making decisions and not having a solution,” Brueckner, 45, said. “I was always taught you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. I wanted to do something about it. Hopefully, there will be one or two kids who stand at the crossroads because of our class and make better life choices.”
Brueckner stands by the entrance before every class to greet students. He expects eye contact and a proper handshake from them.
Students address their 14 instructors with the title of “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” and instructors show students the same respect. Unlike traditional classrooms, instructors spend more time engaging directly with students through thought-provoking questions and comments instead of mainly speaking to a group of kids quietly listening. Then students stand up straight, and with hands at their sides and eyes on the instructor, share thoughts that are met by equally respectful agreement or rebuttals from instructors and fellow classmates.
“You give respect and you get respect, and you share the respect around the school,” said Stephen Decatur High School sophomore Gio Dascoli, 15, of West Ocean City, a member of the original 10-person graduating class in 2015 who now serves as an assistant instructor.
Assistant instructor and 2017 graduate Amella Mehan, 14, said the first chapter, I Will Never Turn My Back on the Ocean, helped her make more friends by controlling her once short temper.
“You shouldn’t be ignorant about what’s happening around you, because it could be your undoing,” said the eighth grader at Stephen Decatur Middle School. “You need to be aware so you know how to react properly. You know what you have done, your actions, and know what to do. It helps to solve problems.”
Theresa Torpey, an assistant principal and head of the afterschool academy at Stephen Decatur Middle School, recalled instantly being excited about the Surf Into Integrity program, which is open to all students at the school. But the self-proclaimed city girl from Philadelphia, who refuses to step into the ocean, was concerned about the students’ safety in the water during surfing lessons.
“I went to that beach, and I watched how [instructors] were with the kids, and all of my fears were erased. It’s all about safety first,” Torpey said of a program that features two instructors for every student in the water and more importantly produces success stories like that of a former middle-school student whose time in the program enhanced his innate but initially misdirected leadership qualities.
“He was a leader in this building but not always for the right reasons,” Torpey said. “But when he stepped on that beach, he knew that he needed to be a positive role model, and all of the kids stopped and they watched everything he did. They were in awe of him.”
His positive influence soon stretched into every corner of the school. For example, Torpey said, “You would see him with a student who may have been targeted or may have been picked on, and you would watch him sit next to that child and talk to him.”
Torpey often sees students reading Tomson’s book at lunchtime in school, because they want to be prepared for that afternoon’s class.
Now, parents of students are reading the book, and they regularly join in the sessions on the beach. “It’s a compliment to the students who read the book and choose to participate in a way that we’re asking them to participate,” program administrator Rusty Ruszin said.
Ocean City Surf Club officials are focused on expanding the program to other middle schools. Brueckner said schools up and down the East Coast have expressed interest.
“There are more impressionable teens to reach out there,” he said. “We’re going to get to do a lot of good in their lives.