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OC Register Write Up

All aboard the Surfbus

The program targets inland youths who can enjoy a day at the beach in a safe environment.

BY LAYLAN CONNELLY / The Orange County Register

Mary Setterholm has seen it happen too many times.

The sirens blare, the crowds at the beach watch in shock.

The first time she happened upon a drowning incident, she walked up to a grieving woman and asked if she could pray with her. The woman grabbed her hand. "I'm his aunt," she said, then let out a sob.

The second time was in 1999, when a 12-year-old girl skipped school to go to the beach. The lifeguards rescued her once - but she went back in, unaware of the rip current dangers in the ocean. Her lifeless body was found days later."I was angry. I know the sea did not want to take this child," said the spiky-haired blonde, looking out into the ocean. "We as adults are missing the opportunity to save these children.

"So Setterholm, 51, created L.A. Surfbus, a program she started a few years back that expanded this year into Orange County. Its purpose is to bring youth who normally can't get to the beach on weekly trips to the coast.Surfbus has allowed about 8,000 children to come to the sand this summer, with the last of the trips this week.

I caught up with Setterholm last week to check out the program. Shortly after I arrived in Huntington at Dog Beach - where the waves lap soft enough for these inexperienced swimmers - Setterholm helped 11-year-old Dalia Covarrubias, a young girl who is staying with extended family here this summer.

The two headed into the ocean together, and got ready to take off on a wave. Covarrubias stood up successfully, stretching her hands out into the air with success. As they reached shallow water, they exchanged high fives and immediately charge another one.

"I like being in the water," said a shy Covarrubias. Not only has she been taught through the program how to surf, but also has been educated about rip current and other dangers, she said.

"If there's something on the ground, you have to go like this so it doesn't hurt you," she said, popping up from the sand and shuffling her feet quickly back and forth.

And on this day, she exclaimed with glee as a pod of dolphins passed.

We sometimes forget that just miles inland from the coast, there are so many kids out there that can't get to the ocean, because it's just not part of their culture or way of life.

In Los Angeles, Setterholm has gone to probation officers and the Department of Corrections to find at-risk kids to join Surfbus. She has gone into South Central to talk to parents, because they are wary of letting their kids go to the beach, she said. She partners with other non-profits and church groups to find participants.

"We have to get these kids out of their neighborhood to have a good time," she said. "There are kids who are battle-worn in our own back yards."Setterholm knows what it's like to struggle. Raised by a single mother, she relished the days her aunt would pick her up for a trip to the beach. She would ride hard - any wave - because she knew it might be her last. When her mother got remarried and they moved to Newport, she took advantage of every swell she could get.

"I've been on welfare, I've been on that street," she said. "I may not get there tomorrow. That's what made me hungry.

"It was on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier that Setterholm got into the surf scene - becoming so good she took home a world championship at the United States Surfing Championships in 1972.She also was one of the founders for the Women's International Surfing Association, sitting as the group's first president.

Being that this is her old stomping grounds, she was especially proud to start O.C. Surfbus. This season is wrapping up - but she already has started planning for next year, hoping to bring kids from Costa Mesa and Santa Ana to the beach.

"It belongs to them as much as anyone else," she said. "I need help. I want Orange County to believe in this."

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