The next wave in fellowship

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Love of surfing brings together more than 450 Rotary members from 20 countries

By Arnold R. Grahl

Renata Valente is trying to keep her marshmallow from falling into the fire. The Brazilian-born Rotaractor, who spent a year in Indiana as a Rotary Youth Exchange student and now attends San Diego State University, is at the beachside Crown Point Park for an event organized by Surfers Unite Rotarian Fellowship (SURF), one of Rotary’s newest fellowships. 

Rotaractors and guests roast marshmallows at a Surfers Unite Rotarian Fellowship event at beachside Crown Point Park, San Diego, in April.

Photos courtesy of Surfers Unite Rotarian Fellowship

The sun has set, but the faces of more than 30 attendees — Rotarians, Rotaractors, Interactors, and guests — glow in the light of the bonfire as they make s’mores and enjoy some music.

“It’s Friday night, and this is exactly what my friends and I wanted to do,” says Valente. “It’s exciting knowing you are going to be able to have fun and be with your friends, but also do something that impacts your community.”

Valente learned about SURF in October 2017, when volunteers from her Rotaract club traveled to Ensenada, Mexico, to help fix up an orphanage. One morning, SURF founder Brett Morey and other members of the fellowship took the volunteers and orphans surfing. Valente has been an active member ever since. 

Morey, a member of the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle, California, grew up bodyboarding and surfing on beaches from Huntington Beach to Del Mar. Last year, he decided Rotary needed a fellowship centered on surfing. He assembled a prospective leadership team, and at the 2017 Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, he collected the necessary signatures — on his surfboard — to petition the RI Board. 

The fellowship has already grown to more than 450 members in over 20 countries. Its mission: introducing people to surfing, attracting young people to Rotary, building connections, and mentoring.

At the Standup for the Cure event, paddleboarders participate in a 5K race.

SURF members span the globe from Argentina to New Zealand, including countries that have no access to oceans, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary. Members don’t have to be near oceans or seas to capture the spirit of the fellowship, which is bringing together Interactors, Rotaractors, and Rotarians for fun events.

“The thing I think about is making Rotary relevant to this generation,” says Morey. “We talk all the time about bringing youth into Rotary. This is the type of social event that allows us to grow our Interact clubs and Rotary.” Rotarians can join SURF for $20 a year; Interactors and Rotaractors join for free. Members host events that range from surf outings to fundraisers.

“When I started to think about a fellowship, my whole vision was to take some of the things I was already doing in San Diego and bring that to a global scale,” Morey says. “Anybody who is near water can hold a bonfire event or do a stand-up paddleboard event or a learn-to-surf event. It’s all about building understanding between people. And that is exactly what the purpose of Rotary is.”

In May, SURF members took part in Standup for the Cure in nearby Newport Bay, taking to paddleboards to raise money for breast cancer research. They’ve also volunteered at Life Rolls On events, which give people with disabilities a chance to surf by means of adaptive surfboards. 

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At a Life Rolls On event, Brett Morey’s friend Leo Berg gets a chance to enjoy the ocean.

A Life Rolls On event in September 2017 held special meaning for Morey; a childhood friend, Leo Berg, was assisted into the water. A snowboarding accident in 1993 left Berg paralyzed from a brain stem injury. Morey recalls it as “a difficult but spiritually uplifting time” that cemented relationships with those he had grown up with as they held a bedside vigil for their friend.

Now, he says, “taking Leo and others surfing through Life Rolls On is very rewarding. It gives them an opportunity to enjoy something we take for granted.” 

At the Crown Point Park bonfire, Morey works the crowd, introducing Interact members from different schools, connecting Rotarians with Rotaractors, and otherwise playing emcee of the beach party. A Rotaractor from San Diego State who is applying to medical school and a Rotarian who is a retired orthopedic surgeon discover they have a common bond in Romania, where the student’s family lives and where the Rotarian’s grandfather came from. Before long, the Rotaractor is getting advice about navigating the medical school application process.

Johnny Lee joined SURF after moving to San Diego from Fremont, California, and attending the La Jolla Golden Triangle club with Morey.  

“I’ve done quite a few Rotary events, but this is especially fun,” says Lee. Shortly after joining, he learned to surf at one of the fellowship’s events.

“It was both harder and easier than I expected,” he says. “Harder, because I didn’t realize I would be nearly drowning a good bit of the time. But easier because, once you stay above the water, it’s not hard to ride the wave.

“As a young Rotarian, I want to do things both globally and locally. This is helping out our community, and it is creating something exciting,” he says. “Surfing is a great activity for bringing in young people.”

— Arnold R. Grahl

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