Dionne Ybarra never turns her back on the ocean
Dionne Ybarra grew up skateboarding in a rough neighborhood in Salinas, California. If you had told her she’d be spending her time teaching young girls how to surf in the future, she would have been quite surprised – Dionne was afraid of the ocean. Today she runs The Wahine Project, an organization that helps girls gain self-confidence as they learn to respect the ocean, one another and themselves.
Dionne starts surfing
Many surfers start young. They grow up near oceans and spend every possible moment chasing waves. Dionne was not one of these lucky youngin’s. The closest she came to riding waves was chasing friends down the street on a skateboard. Today she passes on this tradition to her surfing students, breaking out short boards in beach parking lots.
She didn’t begin surfing until age 37, when she and a friend from cycling club decided to give it a try. Terrified, she hopped on a board and immediately fell in love. Dionne told Whoa that surfing makes her feel alive – it’s the perfect mix of terrifying and exhilarating. One of her children is part Hawaiian and had been surfing long before she ever set foot on a board. There’s nothing quite like the pressure to do well at something your own kids are into!
But that wasn’t what drew her to the sea. Dionne is athletic, having been a runner, skater, triathlete and cyclist. With surfing, she hoped to get over her fear of the ocean and has since gained a deep respect for the water and all who call it home. Dionne recalled she and her friend didn’t even use leashes their first time on the water.
“We went out and got really lucky,” she said in nostalgic awe. She’s proud that day didn’t scare them away from the water but it did push them to their limits. Sometimes when Dionne is on her board she realizes how few people, especially women, are paddling out to meet waves around the world at that exact moment. “It’s amazing and beautiful to be a tiny speck,” she said.
The Wahine Project
As she realized how much self-confidence she gained while learning the new sport, Dionne decided to bring the ocean to young girls in the hopes they’d have a similar experience. She started The Wahine Project six years ago to educate girls ages 7 to 17 on surfing, wellness and global citizenship.
Pronounced wa-hee-nee, the Hawaiian word means young surfer girl. When Dionne heard the term, she knew it had to become a part of her budding organization. Located two hours south of San Francisco in Monterey County, the project is made up of teachers from all surfing skill levels that want to pass on their love of the ocean to the younger generations.
Not only do girls learn how to catch waves, they also spend time talking about conservation and ways to make the ocean a cleaner, safer place for all. Health and wellness are also big topics during the camps and classes. Students talk about healthy eating and often greatly alter their lunches after a few sessions. They go from Cheetos and Lunchables to better options after hearing about the benefits of fresh produce and unprocessed foods. They even partake in beach cleanups, working together to improve the ocean for marine life and the people who interact with it. The three r’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) are definitely prevalent here.
Many of the students come from places near the sea but may have never really considered joining the fun out on the water. Others are inlanders who fly to Santa Monica to become Wahines. Some hear of the program and want in, stoked about gaining some serious cool points and spending their days in the sun. A few are more hesitant and don’t hop on board (mentally or physically) right away. Dionne said it’s incredible to see the change in the girls as they get more comfortable with their bodies and know they can try things without fear of anyone judging them.
One of the phrases the girls are taught is to “eat your sunscreen.”
That doesn’t mean literally squeezing SPF into your mouth (ew, no thanks!). Instead, Dionne pointed out that eating fruits and veggies that ripen best in high heat can help your skin out in the sun. Berries become a particular favorite of many of her Wahines, who also slather themselves in colorful Zinka sunblock. Dionne believes it’s important to teach kids about nutrition at a young age, and makes sure she and the other teachers share tips with the girls so they have energy to ride and play all day.
The concept of Aloha is a big part of The Wahine Project. Many people don’t realize the word doesn’t just mean “hello” and “goodbye”. It is almost akin to the meaning of “Namaste,” or breath. It is an acknowledgement of another human. The girls of the Project talk about Aloha as a way of relating to one another and the ocean. Dionne believes surfing isn’t just a fun activity – it’s a way of life.
The Wahine Project mission statement started out solely about surfing, but quickly changed to “Inspiring a global response that eliminates the barriers preventing a diversity of girls from a personal relationship with the ocean and one another.” Participants learn to know the sea and themselves, all while forming an incredibly unique and supportive community. If only more young ladies could find themselves grinning ear to ear as they make friends and realize just how capable they truly are.
The core program runs from September to May, allowing those who have never surfed to start out slow and gain confidence while more sea-worthy gals can take that time to improve their skills. Wahine also includes camps, lessons, yoga, boogie boarding, beach games and even partnerships with local Girl Scout Troops. Want to learn more? Visit The Wahine Project website.
Dionne chose to work with girls because they are dear to her heart. Her profession pre-Wahine Project involved helping pregnant moms go through labor. “Women need encouragement,” she said, both of their time giving birth and through their entire lives. She hesitated to surf as a young person because she only ever saw boys doing it. After a few days, program attendees leave their body issues and fears behind. Instead of being worried about donning a bikini and trying to figure out a new skill, they come to the camps and classes beaming, looking forward to talking about today’s water conditions and finding their footing.
Teaching the girls to surf is about showing them they can push themselves to their limits. Dionne finds that boys naturally do this, throwing themselves into tree climbing and dangerous physical activities starting at a young age. Girls, on the other hand, often abstain from such challenges and opt to do slightly less when it comes to breaking their boundaries and trying new things.
Think about it. If you sat and watched a skate park for a while you’re likely to see more boys than girls. When the skaters fall they just get back up as if nothing happened. In Dionne’s experience, girls become more embarrassed and may not even get back on the board because they’re too ashamed. It’s time we change this stigma and teach girls that it’s awesome to fall and try again – it’s the only way to learn. Making mistakes is a big part of gaining confidence. And it’s pretty badass, too.
“The ocean provides a unique experience to constantly be pushed outside of your comfort zone. You sit in it and overcome your fears, become more confident,” Dionne told us.
“You have to stretch those muscles so you can find what is really comfortable.” Surfing has definitely become a constant part of her life, as she travels to spread The Wahine Project stoke across the country and even abroad, working with outreach programs in Mexico and more.
After a few surfing sessions, Wahine girls tend to forget their fears. Instead, they head to the water knowing they’re putting themselves in a situation they can handle. Dionne said they often think, “I did it yesterday at the beach and I can do it today.” And it’s all because of perseverance and practice.
Of the famous Surfer’s Code, the phrase, “Never turn your back on the ocean” has really stuck with Dionne. To her it’s not just about paying attention to the powerful body of water so it doesn’t wallop you when you’re not looking. Instead, it’s a mantra to keep in mind both on and off the board. It means don’t turn your back on your friends or yourself. The Wahine students learn this phrase, and add it to their toolbox of surfer-philosophy that can relate to many areas of life.
The ocean has given Dionne many things. It’s a place she considers home and has united her with many friends and connections. It even gave her a new skateboard. One day when she and a friend were scoping the wave conditions off Santa Cruz, they saw a longboard come floating out of the ocean onto the beach. They looked around incredulously – no one was near them. As the duo approached the curious miracle, a short board followed right after. Both were in great condition and only needed new bearings. Dionne still has the board and rides it often, wondering if it was some kind of salt-water karma that united her with her new ride.
One thing that keeps many people from choosing surfing as a hobby is the high cost of the gear.
Boards, leashes and wet suits can rack up to over $1000 pretty quickly. Dionne has found that her favorite board is not one of the newest, most high-tech models. It’s actually from Costco, and with a $100 price tag it’s accessible to the masses. Despite having ridden waves on more streamlined, swanky rides, Dionne comes back to her trusty low-cost board time and time again.
Dionne recently had a baby and is regaining confidence after spending time off the water. Body changes can make coming back to the proper balance a bit of a process. Plus, she said her hormones make her much more cautious than usual, and for now she’s looking forward to enjoying spending time at home with her family. Her passion for ocean conservation and giving girls a new look on life is truly incredible. She speaks with enthusiasm that is catching, and although we spoke over the phone she definitely has that excited sparkle in her eyes as she talks about both learning and teaching surfing and ocean conservation.
If you’re ever in the area, we recommend seeing if there’s a Wahine event to attend. There’s even a Mom’s Surf Club you can join. Not sure you can make it on the waves? Dionne claims anyone who really wants to can surf. Even women who claim they’re 6th generation land walkers with no balance whatsoever – it’s about building up strength and endurance. Whoa believes you can do it!
To learn more about Dionne check out her TEDx Talk.
Keep your eyes peeled for a smiling brunette surfing a Costco board and you just might spot Dionne in person.