HUNTINGTON BEACH — As the school bus rolls up to the beach, Veronica Lopez looks out the window past the wide-open sand at the pounding surf and whispers, "I'm scared."
The shy 14-year-old from inner-city Los Angeles lives closer to the beach than most Americans, but she has been there only once, as a toddler. To overcome her fear of the water, she'll need more than another day at the beach — she'll need a surfboard.
Lopez is one of hundreds of city kids — mostly teenagers — catching waves this summer with LA Surf Bus, one of a growing number of programs in Florida, California and Hawaii dedicated to getting children off the streets and into the ocean before they turn to gangs and drugs.
"The beach is only 22 miles away from us, but it might as well be a million miles away," said Martin Rascon, a Los Angeles Parks Department supervisor who runs an inner-city summer camp. "By bringing them out here, they're going to know that it's OK to get out of East L.A."
Most kids who sign up for the free, eight-week surfing session don't own a swimsuit, can't swim and have been to the beach just once or twice, if at all. Most don't realize that their classroom — eight miles of beach in the self-proclaimed Surf City, USA — also hosts one of the sport's hottest competitions, the U.S. Open of Surfing.
Yet the program, mostly conducted in waist-deep water, doesn't pretend to churn out lifelong surfers: it's as much an effort to open their minds as to get them on a board.
The first challenge, however, is making peace with choppy waters.
Lopez has been quiet the entire ride as dingy storefronts and graffiti-covered freeway overpasses give way to sun-drenched beaches, gently curving bike paths and the smell of the sea. She hangs back when the doors of the bus wheeze open and her classmates race down the sand, pushing and shoving each other into the crashing waves.
Once they are reassembled on the beach, they get matching periwinkle blue neoprene shirts and learn the basics of water safety: how to signal for help, how to spot a rip current, how to avoid sting rays hidden in the sand.
When it's officially time to enter the water, Lopez swallows her fear and jumps in clinging to a plastic foam body board. The panic on her face foreshadows the inevitable: she gets sucked under by a wave and spun around in the shallows.
She comes up gasping for air, her long, dark hair clinging to her face in wet strands, and retreats to a safe spot on the sand.
"I felt like I was getting pushed to the deep end," she said. "I was scared of the fish, and I thought there would be sting rays."
A fish out of water like Lopez is just the kind of kid LA Surf Bus founder Mary Setterholm wants at the beach — and on a wave.
Setterholm, who won the Women's U.S. Surfing Championships in 1972, recalls how she was giving private surfing lessons several years ago when a 12-year-old girl drowned nearby. The girl had ditched class in South L.A. and come to the pristine beach with friends.
"I was teaching the private kids on the south side of the pier, and the drowning happened on the north side," she said. "I thought, this is crazy. We're going to the wrong population. Right there, this little girl gave me a vision, a roadmap."
Setterholm incorporated LA Surf Bus as a nonprofit in 2003, but enrollment exploded this year as word spread among countyand city-run camps that cater to low-income families.
Now, the 52-year-old grandmother with sun-bleached hair brings an average of 200 kids a day from Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods to Orange County's famous Dog Beach. She dives into the waves with them, guiding their boards through knee-deep water as the kids wobble and weave — and eventually, stand up on their own.
"I took a couple of tries, a couple of falls, but at the end it was worth it," said Yaritza Hernandez, 14. "When you go in there, all you're thinking about is, like, air that you need and if you drown. You just try and try again."
The trips are funded by $70,000 from the proceeds of Setterholm's private surf school, as well as anonymous donations and grants. Still, she worries that she won't be able to keep up with demand; Setterholm recently told the camps they had to provide their own buses, which cost about $450 per bus per day. That led about 40 groups to drop out.
The cutbacks were crushing for Setterholm, who sees surfing, with its exhilarating rides and humbling wipeouts, as a metaphor for these children's lives. She hopes they will remember the freedom of surfing and absorb the resilience it requires long after their last wave.
"I've been told by therapists who've come with us that they never knew until that day that some of these kids could laugh," she said. "For those us of who just take the ocean for granted and its joy, this is huge."
After five hours in the water, many of the kids have lost interest. But Lopez rides wave after wave with a friend, Setterholm and a seasoned teenage surfer, one of many who volunteer with the Surf Bus.
Lopez laughs as she rides the little waves on her belly. The power of the water no longer scares her, it fascinates her.
"At the beginning I was kind of scared, but then I got the hang of it," she said. "I liked laying down on the board and just letting the water push me."
On the way back home, some kids excitedly compare their sunburns and surfing exploits.
But most are sound asleep, heads pressed against the windows, as the salt air gives way to smog and the lurching motion of the bus replaces the rhythm of the sea.