and a difference was made aka how I ended up working for Surfrider

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The agenda item instructed us to share a challenge we’d experienced that had led to the work we do. After each story, those of us who’d listened would identify points in the story that “resonated” with us. Our origins varied in the details and geography, but we’d all ended up part of a coalition of coastal advocates and as such, finding commonality came easy.

But I didn’t get to tell my story then, so instead I do so now.

Let me place you in the room, because it matters. Surfrider’s headquarters sits in an industrial park in San Clemente, California, surrounded by strip malls and SoCal-interpreted Spanish-style homes. Which is to say, you might expect something different, cliché, as you’re winding up the road.

But once inside, sudden coolness – and not just relief from the omnipresent sunshine. High ceilings and low dividers. Hanging lightbulbs and mounted surfboards. A giant chalk drawing of the continental U.S. with priority campaigns mapped out. More surfboards. In the kitchen, the staff jokes over tamales, but in the main area, silence and a sense of purpose dominate, broken only by quick consultations about projects, the occasional Pandora station, one-sided phone conversations revealing the bar is set very, very high.

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This workshop/retreat I’m attending as a Surfrider employee unfolds in our conference room. Framed covers of “Making Waves,” Surfrider’s longtime newsletter, line one wall. The usual whiteboard and projector take up space. By the door is a plaque listing decades of boardmembers.

As I sit in this room pondering the path that led me here, I think, as always, how clear in hindsight, how impossible to imagine looking forward from 18 years ago. I could pick out a campaign challenge or six, but the challenge that springs to mind is less specific – and yet, everything. The challenge was my life.

My husband and I had launched from SoCal to the far northern reaches of the state. We had no friends, no family there, were propelled solely by a dream that involved raising our children in a beautiful place, a place with art and music and redwoods and rivers. A place on the coast, but where normal people could afford to live. The beaches were uncrowded.

I was 28 when we made the move, with three kids and seven years of service industry under my belt. A year into our Humboldt chapter, my husband was attending Humboldt State University while I took a full load of classes at College of the Redwoods, working 20 hours a week in the writing center, balancing – trying to balance – our family life. We were on food stamps, welfare. But the summer before I turned 30, I managed to take a women’s surfing class through HSU. An ocean lover despite my desert upbringing, I’d always wanted to surf, but was too shy, too awkward, too worried about looking stupid.

From the moment I walked into the Pacific with surfboard in hand it was like coming home.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed my poli sci instructor regardless of all this. But the fact that he tolerated when I had to bring my little children to class with me and was himself in love with surfing surpassed even his ability to explain the electoral college – which I grasped for at least five minutes before understanding melted away. I started chatting surfing with him after class. He was in his late 50s at the time, had been surfing less than a decade, which surprised me given how much his passion for it shaped his life. After I wrapped up my semester at CR, we stayed in touch, became friends. He’d pick me up in the morning for dawn patrol, talk politics, Humboldt history.

On the way out to the surf, we’d pass the two pulp mills on Humboldt Bay. Back then, one still operated, the other had closed down, both subjects of a 1989 Surfrider Foundation/EPA lawsuit. The mills settled, agreeing to what was then the third-largest EPA fine levied under the Clean Water Act with over 40,000 violations confirmed. My poli-sci-prof-turned-mentor had been involved with the lawsuits at the time and his dedication to the environment I held dear further expanded my admiration. He’d followed up the settlement by dedicating more time to Surfrider, locally and nationally.

Fast forward to 2007. I traveled to San Diego to visit a friend, surfed for the first time in Southern California. Upon my return, my husband broke the news to me: Glenn had suffered a stroke while out in the water. He’d been able to get to shore with help from friends, but the prognosis wasn’t good. Four months later, in January, 2008, he passed away without ever recovering. I never told him all the ways in which he influenced me. I can only hope they were obvious.

What I did do was help organize the memorial paddle-out. What I did do was, when his family wanted to donate money to the local Surfrider chapter only to discover the local chapter had ceased to exist, was to get a bunch of us surfers together to reconstitute it. What I did do was continue to incorporate environmental reporting on Humboldt Bay into my world at the weekly paper. And those actions led directly to my job at Ocean Conservancy in 2009, to my continued career in ocean and coastal advocacy, to why I was sitting in that conference room at Surfrider HQ building relationships and brainstorming about how we were going to save California’s coast.

What I still do, every time I’m at HQ is to throw a mental shaka at that plaque in the conference room, the one that lists the former chairmen of the board. I smile at the line that reads “Glenn Stockwell.” I say a little thank you. And I keep trying to do some good in this world.

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(More photos and history at “Surf Stockwell.”)

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