Changing Direction

Surfing helps steer at-risk youth into healthier waters.
Cynthia Derosier (center) founded a program to help at-risk girls. She’s shown with volunteers Ye Nguyen (left), Marvin Heskitt and Annabel Murray.

Photo by Sergio Goes

Seven years ago, Cynthia Derosier rented a surfboard from a stand in Waikiki and caught her first wave. That wave changed her life.

Now the 42-year-old freelance art director from Kailua isn’t just surfing as often as humanly possible. She’s spreading the good vibrations to at-risk teens on Oahu.

Last April, Derosier, with help from Hawaii Girls Court, started the Surfrider Spirit Sessions, a six-week program run by surfers and aimed at showing troubled teenaged girls how to live better, healthier lives through surfing.

With lessons by Waikiki beachboys, more than a dozen teens—and their social workers—caught their first waves at Canoes, a friendly break off Kuhio Beach.

They were hooked.

“Surfing was something that gave me great joy and great peace and helped make my life richer and more balanced. It just made sense to share tha­t with these girls,” Derosier says. “It was so simple and so easy and the ocean is right there, right outside our door.”

Each weekly session focuses on a theme from the motivational book The Surfer Spirit, which Derosier wrote in 2005. It became the basis for teaching teens the lessons that come with surfing: patience, respect, commitment, humility.

Many of the teens have endured multiple traumas, including rape, physical abuse and drug addiction. The program succeeds by doing more than giving them a chance to surf on Saturday mornings. It provides an outlet through which they can talk honestly, laugh together and achieve something as simple as standing up on a surfboard.

“Our kids are risk-takers by nature, but they’re taking unhealthy risks,” says Hawaii Family Court Judge Karen Radius, who established the Hawaii Girls Court in 2004, one of the first of its kind in the nation. “Surfing has a level of risk. And if we can replace some of their interest in the unhealthy risk with this kind of positive adrenaline stuff, that thrills me.”

Raising money—to pay for professional surf lessons, board rentals, rashguards, transportation and lunch—has been the biggest challenge.

Last year, Derosier managed to raise about $10,000 in just two months through a grant from the Hawaii Women’s Fund, contributions from the Hawaii Women’s Legal Foundation, proceeds from the sale of her book and personal donations.

Derosier had enough funds for a second six-week session in July, adding yoga and journaling to the program. This month, she’s extending the session to 10 weeks. By the summer she hopes to have enough money to create a companion program for at-risk boys.

Her bigger goal is to take the program to other Surfrider Foundation chapters across the nation. Already, the New Jersey chapter is interested in using the Spirit Sessions as a model for a gang-prevention program.

To learn more about or support the program, visit To learn more about Hawaii Girls Court, visit