A girl surfing with a small black dog on the end of her surfboard

Blog - More than surfing - reducing social isolation with MeWater

More than surfing - reducing social isolation with MeWater

9 minute read

Being able to enjoy our favourite watersport activity can be the difference between having a bad day and a significantly improved one!

Wanting to share the fun and life-enhancing impact of the ocean, MeWater is a nonprofit organisation that introduces those who may have never experienced the sea to its positive and therapeutic potential.

Three girls in the sea, one in the middle doing a peace sign

Set up in 2015 by surfers and mental health professionals, the charity has worked with an incredible 4,000 at-risk youth in the San Francisco area, covering local neighborhoods including Bayview, Hunters Point, and Visitation Valley.

Providing day and overnight surf camps to youth, families, and groups, MeWater works to develop life-changing relationships with the community by empowering people through both the ocean and nature.

We were excited to speak to MeWater’s Founder and President Eddie Donnellan about the organization’s origin, how the camps help people in other aspects of their life, and the charity’s invite to work with the Tlingit tribe located in Yakutat, Alaska.

As part of the dryrobe® Warmth Project, we are proud to provide dryrobe® Advance change robes and dryrobe® Towels to the charity on their recent trip to the Yakutat.

A group of kids sat on a log outside near a forest wearing wetsuits

Previous to starting MeWater Foundation, you guys worked at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families for two decades. What made you want to pursue surfing specifically as a way to support youth, families and groups?
Edgewood Center is where it all started for us. I worked there for 22 years, up until April 2021, when I took the leap to MeWater full time.

At Edgewood, we worked in their residential treatment program, that served some incredibly challenged youth, the majority who had come from severe trauma, abuse, and neglect.

For a child to end up at Edgewood is not a simple path, as they would have failed in many lower-level placements and foster care settings. The only placement above a setting like Edgewood is psychiatric hospitalisation or incarceration, which many of the youth had also been through these types of settings. These kids are products of their often hectic and trauma-filled home settings, where love, stability, and structure had never existed.

Pretty wild job, to be honest, especially on an emotional level, as the level of trauma these kids had experienced is not something that you leave behind when you go home from work. But that said, these are just kids, who have missed out on what many of us might take for granted, like the little things in childhood, such as loving and safe parents and family.

So, being that Tim and I are dear friends, who had discovered surfing as teens, we had always tried to get these kids in the water and out in mother nature, knowing how much healing it brought us as kids.

Due to many factors, mainly liability, this was not allowed for the most part. I was going through some funky bureaucratic stuff at Edgewood and was contemplating leaving, and as I was dealing with all of this, I decided on a whim to start MeWater. Basically as a passion project of sorts, combining the two things I am most passionate about, the well being of underserved children and the ocean. This was in 2015, and we started very small, building trust and relationships with youth, families, and community-based organisations here in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

A group of surfers in the water with a kid running from board to board

What is the importance of reducing social isolation through the surf camps and how can the camps help people later on?
What a great question! Our program is about so much more than a day in the waves or mountains. MeWater Foundation is more than surfing. It is about increasing one's own self-reliance and purpose. It is about leveraging the strengths of people and reducing social isolation by growing positive connections within the community with the ocean as a conduit to the improvement of well-being.

Young people growing up in challenging circumstances often experience barriers to accessing the emotional support they need to cope with the pressures of daily life. The constant stress of under-resourced communities often results in behavioural and learning problems, an increase in social isolation, and a need for realistic opportunities to enable young people to prosper.

MeWater Foundation works to address adjustments of trauma and stress in young people from backgrounds of poverty and violence by providing a different way of relating to the world and communities they live in, all through the power of nature and the ocean.

MeWater connects vulnerable young people to positive community members and creates opportunities for youth to develop new skills, practice new coping mechanisms and form positive, reciprocal relationships with trusted peers. This building of self-reliance and the willingness and ability to trust others is a massive building block for the youth as they move forward in their lives.

Many of our youth come back to volunteer, even work for MeWater, as the tools and experiences that they had as youngsters shaped them into truly understanding the importance and impact of helping others, just like the joy and unconditional love that was shared with them.

A kid in a hooded wetsuit catching a wave with a surf instructor behind him

You recently visited Yakutat, Alaska for the second year in a row to support the Tlingit tribe and their Yakutat Surf Club. How were the camps received and why did you revisit this area?
This experience has been so special, on so many levels. We were invited last year by the Tlingit Tribe to come up to Yakutat and help support them as they are teaching their community how to exist and play in the ocean safely. This warm welcome is something that we don't take for granted, as we share our knowledge with their community, all the while immersed in an incredible local culture, where the tribe respects the ocean, as it has been passed along from their elders.

The one piece missing for them was safety and surfing! The Tlingit Tribe has been in Yakutat for a very long time, and to be even a small part of their youth learning to surf has been so special. This year, we even brought up two MeWater teenagers to Yakutat, and this was a mind-blowing experience for them, to say the least!

Next month, we will pay it forward even further, as the youth, staff, and families from Yakutat Surf Club will spend a week in San Francisco, as we show them our surf and the California coastline.

Three kids sat on the beach in wetsuits taking a break after surfing

Every year, MeWater provides over 25-30 daily outings with an average of 20-25 kids attending each outing as well as more than 2-3 overnight annual camping/surfing events. How do the children get referred to the program?
We actually do more than 50-60 camps per year now, and many more overnight experiences out in Mother Nature. This summer we camped and surfed locally, went river rafting and camping on the American River, visited Yosemite Valley, as well as camps in Santa Barbara County and Santa Cruz County.

As for how we get kids, we work with a lot of local community-based organisations, who will bring their kids to us, and then we do a lot of work with kids from all over the community.

These community kids are really an important part of the work we do, as maybe their family doesn't have the resources or awareness of organisations, or maybe they don't trust the process. We have deep relationships in these communities, based on our many years of being immersed in children's mental health, and word of mouth from trusted community members.

It is important to share that the majority of the youth we serve have never been surfing, many have never been in the ocean, nor can swim! We break down so many barriers for them simply as unconditional giving, as our program is always free!

A group of kids sat on a surfboard in the sea laughing

What feedback do you receive from those who attend the surf camps?
Ha! The most common immediate feedback is "this is the most fun that I have ever had"!!!

The most common question is "when can we go again"? These types of interactions mean so much more to me than any sort of data or analytics we gather, as we are really focused on the simple act of creating equitable access to our youth, and we let mother nature do the rest.

The facts are that the great outdoors is the purest form of trauma and stress relief, and to be a part of sharing that is the "why" behind MeWater.

A kid catching a wave in the sea

What is next for MeWater Foundation and are there any exciting plans in the next year or so?
We have so much going on! Now that summer is winding down, we will be focusing on after-school and weekend surf and camp experiences. It is so cool to get kids surfing after school, they look forward to it so much.

Along with that, we will continue our expansion work down in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties, where we have established great relationships with programs down there.

We are going to be expanding our community-based work, as we offer youth and families CPR/First Aid, and hold community meetings, where we listen to the needs of the community we serve.

Lots of time in the water and mountains!! It is also important to share that at the core of MeWater are all of our volunteers who make these experiences so special for the youth and families that we serve. These are special people, who come out on their own time to bring smiles and joy to so many kids.

A group of young people on the beach wearing wetsuits and smiling after a surf

Follow MeWater:

Instagram: @mewaterfoundation


Photos by Ann Koch