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Beyond the Surf: Nurturing Resilience and Aspirations Through Play

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

By Cata Chacon, Senior Manager Future Rising

Maria had eagerly awaited the day she could join the Sirenita Surf Club in Nicaragua, having watched her sister as part of the group for the past 2 years. When she finally met the age requirement, she couldn’t wait to dive in, despite lacking swimming skills. After two months of swimming lessons with the project, she was ready to hit the waves. She gleamed as she carried her own foam board from the bodega to the beach, despite it being clearly too heavy for her.

After a group stretch and a theory class, it was finally time to start paddling. She was so excited but was surprised by how quickly her arms tired! Paddling is exhausting! Regardless, she was determined to catch a wave. Under the brilliant sun and amidst the roaring waves, Maria made many unsuccessful attempts, and our team could see that discouragement had set in. Screaming over the sound of the waves, we reminded her that there was nothing to prove, she was here only to have fun. We coached her to breathe deeply and find a calmness before trying again. A few more attempts ensued until, finally, she stood up and threw her hands in the air. Although the moment was brief, her smile endured throughout the session. She felt proud, powerful, excited, and, most importantly, she was having fun.

Three years later, Maria continues her journey with the project, consistently showing up for herself and honing her skills in and out of the water. Her joy radiates before and after each surf session. While the specifics of her home life remain unknown, for three hours, Maria immerses herself in pure joy within a safe space. Encouraged to push her own boundaries, she accomplishes goals she never thought possible.

Here in Latin America, adolescent girls like Maria find themselves surrounded by pressures to grow up too quickly. They often take on adult roles, shouldering domestic responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings, managing the household, and contributing to family income. These pressures can often mean the end of their education, closing off career opportunities and aspirations. It also means the end of the opportunities for play, exploration, and enjoyment.

My mother was one of those girls. One of nine children, she became an adult far too young, raised by my widowed grandmother, who had only been allowed to complete 2nd grade. Born in the Costa Rican mountains, my grandmother was forced to leave school and take on the responsibility of raising her siblings. After being widowed, she moved to the capitol with her 9 children, the youngest 6 months old, managing to provide food and shelter but leaving now time for play or emotional development. Growing up in such a difficult environment, my mother resolved to change the narrative when she had her own family. Despite not being able to finish high school, she recognized the importance of education. And she was determined to find time to play with me, instilling in me a love of exploration, imagination, laughter and challenge.

My grandmother, my mother, their stories, and the lessons they taught me are what led me to co-found the Sirenitas Surf Club with my partner Isabelle Delfosse. I wanted to create a safe space for girls, to simply be girls - to play, to laugh, to have fun. It sounds so simple, and in many ways it is. Our club opens a gateway to wonder and exhilaration. In the ocean!

There is a magic alchemy that happens when you mix salt, water, sunshine and giggles. It's like finding the recipe to create a rainbow. By playing and surfing during our sessions, the Sirenitas don’t just catch waves - they catch sight of their full potential. They grant themselves kindness when learning something new. They empower themselves to challenge norms, all while laughing alongside other girls who are navigating similar experiences. They've gone from fearing the ocean to understanding the ocean as a place of power and joy. They believe in themselves. And because of this they can envision themselves in other roles outside of the ocean that challenge norms around them as well. ​​These girls aspire to go beyond roles of caretakers and homemakers to become nurses, psychologists, professional surfers, karate champions, biologists, and much more. Some have already embarked on their educational journeys toward these careers, or are taking the first steps.

During my education as a part of my clinical work, I discovered play therapy and saw firsthand its healing power with children. We were encouraged to choose the type of clinical practice we wanted to practice and this was the space where I saw the magical power of play. Play became a powerful tool for them to navigate their feelings, process trauma, explore the world around them, and assert control when agency was often denied to them in the adult-dominated world they inhabited. From facing fear to abuse, play served as a language that many of us have forgotten to speak. A language of discovery, vulnerability and creation.

Today, as a Senior Manager at Girl Rising I am part of a team that designs and delivers programs that help girls and young women develop their voice and agency. We provide the training, tools and resources so that girls can explore their identities and share their stories with the world. We help to carve out spaces for girls in schools, in community centers and on global stages so that their voices and aspirations are part of decision-making processes. We are strong advocates for the rights of girls - their right to education, opportunities, a life free from violence and oppression, and for their right to fully participate in civic life. But at the same time we also recognize that it is the right of girls to simply be girls - to play and laugh with their peers; to be salty, sandy and brimming with excitement; to be silly and free, especially free from the weight of adulthood's expectations.

Maria's journey with the Sirenitas Surf Club echoes the struggles and triumphs of countless girls worldwide. On this World Children's Day, Girl Rising celebrates the profound importance of play in nurturing resilient, creative, and collaborative citizens. All children have the right to run, swim, fall, stand and throw their hands up in triumph with joyful smiles. By upholding children's right to play, we open up opportunities for girls like Marisa to become the leaders of tomorrow, who challenge norms, break barriers, and create a brighter world for all.

Cata is the Senior Manager of Girl Rising’s Future Rising program. Her work with the Sirenita Surf Club is inspired by her mother and grandmother’s story. Her grandmother was forced to leave school after 2nd grade, after learning to sign her name. When she became a citizen of the US she was very proud of signing her US passport. Today, Cata carries this passport around with her wherever she travels as a reminder of her grandmother’s and mother’s sacrifices

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