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Blind Youth Learn to Surf at El Porto

L.A. County lifeguard and surf camp instructor Kip Jerger gives visually impaired kids the chance to connect with the ocean every summer at Learn to Surf L.A. It's a remarkable story of heart, spirit, challenge and triumph.

For a beach that is no stranger to surf lessons, Thursday may have looked like any other sunny day at El Porto in north Manhattan Beach. However, for the blind and visually impaired kids who would soon learn to surf for the first time, Thursday was anything but an ordinary day at the popular surf beach.

In coordination with the Braille Institute, a free non-profit organization that teaches life skills to the blind and visually impaired, Learn to Surf L.A. helped nine blind and visually impaired youth accomplish a feat that they may have otherwise thought unlikely.

"It is all about 'go explore the world and just do it,'" said Christina Tam, a youth and career services manager with the Braille Institute.

With little to no vision and the other senses sharpened, the sound of the crashing swell and the feeling of being pulled by the strong current of the cold ocean could easily be intimidating for the soon-to-be surfers. But these kids are awash in spirit.

"I really like their fearless attitude and their willingness to try things," said Tam. "They are really going to have to try, be a go-getter, test their boundaries and try to be more than who they think they can be...That is what is going to actively create and get them to be confident and find a niche for themselves in this world," she said. "They are always going to have to push the envelope."

For Learn to Surf instructor and former professional surfer Kip Jerger, who has been teaching the visually impaired to surf for the past 12 years, getting the kids into the water was always the easy part. Teaching them how to surf without any sight was another challenge.

So, Jerger came up with his own solution.

"I blindfolded myself and said 'What do I need to learn?'" he said. "I needed to learn how big the board is, where the rails are, where the tail is, where the nose is and where to stand up."

Having taught himself how to surf while blindfolded, Jerger said he gained a better sense of how to work with the kids-- making them rely heavily on their sense of touch.

"The feel has so much to do with it... As you get better, all your senses from your surfboard are coming through your feet so you have to feel that," said Jerger. "Your feet are telling you what is going on."

In addition to boosting confidence with the kids-- many of whom come from at-risk neighborhoods in Los Angeles-- Jerger said that there is an added benefit to teaching them to surf.

"Just coming to the ocean... the spiritual aspect of it, it is so healing. I just wanted other kids who didn't have the opportunity or were less fortunate than I to be able to do so," he said.

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