This Surfing Nonprofit Is Helping Teach Kids About Mental Wellness

All photos by Jessica Paul

Spotting surfers on the beach is common enough in the Bay Area, but if you happen to see groups of kids taking to the waves, they might be there thanks to the MeWater Foundation. What began as a passion project for Marinite founders Eddie Donnellan and Tim Gras nearly 10 years ago has since grown into a one-of-a-kind nonprofit, impacting the lives of more than 5,000 underserved youth in that time, primarily through surf days and camping excursions. On the surface, this may seem like it’s just about having a good time, but the inspiration goes a little deeper — it was Gras and Donnellan’s time working in residential treatment at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco that opened their eyes to the positive effects of outdoor recreation time for at-risk kids.

As he was forming the idea for MeWater, Donnellan drew from his own childhood love of surfing, something he valued as an escape. Despite the Bay Area’s proximity to the ocean, the beach isn’t exactly accessible for everyone and neither is surfing itself. That’s where MeWater comes in. The nonprofit’s year-round San Francisco and Marin surf camps, as well as occasional overnight camping trips, usually on Mount Tamalpais, are completely free. Transportation is provided and whole families can join in on the fun, too.

“The reason I started this was just to really help elevate underserved youths’ mental health and well-being while giving them access to experience things that under normal circumstances they haven’t had the opportunity to do,” Donnellan says. “Providing kids with this opportunity helps build their resilience and confidence and I think it breaks down a lot of barriers for them.”

Donnellan also hopes that the experiences MeWater offers gives participants a chance to look at the world in a different way once they’re placed in new environments, and he especially counts Mother Nature as a huge factor in the foundation’s success. “The great outdoors is there for all of us, and it’s a really powerful healing outlet,” he adds. That’s why surfing isn’t actually required; sometimes, it’s just enough to get the kids outdoors. “It’s their experience and we’re there to help guide them through it, help them answer questions and also just listen,” he says. That could include getting in the water, but each individual is welcome to just watch the waves, talk or build sandcastles if that’s what the child would rather do.

Since surfing, like any sport, is both challenging and rewarding, the MeWater outings also show kids how to succeed, fail and get back up again, all with help and guidance from the organization’s volunteers. “That helps plant a seed for these kids that there are people in the world that can help and be there for them,” Donnellan says. He adds that surfing helps teach life skills like quick thinking, adaptability and being present in the moment. And of course, one of the biggest benefits of a day at the beach is having fun and making memories. “One day this volunteer asked me, ‘Do you remember the first time you went in the ocean?’ And I couldn’t really recall, but this volunteer said, ‘Well, these kids will never forget this day.’ ”

Unlike in competitive sporting situations, defining success in a surfing nonprofit is a bit more complex, especially when so many of the people involved are youth from trauma-impacted communities. “The goal is to make these kids lives’ better,” says Donnellan, though he acknowledges that’s a broad statement. In the immediate sense, there’s the hope that the kids enjoy themselves and maybe learn something. Longer term, he hopes the activities help them gain new perspective and develop self-reliance. But according to Donnellan, the real answer might be simpler than we think: “The most common question at the end of the day is ‘When can I go again?’ Then you know you’re doing something right.”


children in surf gear on the beach