While this is long overdue, we’d like to say goodbye to Tía Chelsea, who returned to the states after nearly three years in Valparaiso. Chelsea came to us through our internship program in early 2016 and quickly realized that she couldn’t imagine leaving Valpo after just one year. As such, she continued working with us as a fellow, primarily tackling programming and volunteer coordination, while remaining in charge of all communication with Cerro Montedónico. She is spoken of as a legend of sorts, having made a tremendous impact on our students, our office, and the greater community.
Chelsea first joined Valpo Surf Project after completing her undergraduate degree at University of Oregon, home of the ducks. Having studied Psychology and International Studies in college, having spent a semester in nearby Buenos Aires, and having grown up surfing, our internship program seemed like the perfect fit. She came down to Chile with a passion for the language, for the ocean, and for social work in general, so she hit the ground running upon her arrival.
While it would be hard to summarize her impact on the program over her years in Valparaiso, there are several aspects of her work that stand out. First and foremost, our students absolutely loved her. Teaching and mentoring seemed to come naturally to her, as she quickly found ways to connect with our student body through her interests. She did so with a calm energy, finding a strong balance between structured instruction and dynamic engagement that captivated our kids. They looked to her for guidance in tough times, because they always knew that her wisdom would steer them in the right direction and offer them solace. Suffice it to say, she found a way to make them feel supported, loved, and challenged simultaneously.
This connection extended to parents as well, particularly in Cerro Montedónico. The moms of Montedonico, a hilarious group of women, love her unconditionally and ask about her frequently. She connected with them on the deepest level imaginable, making them feel supported as parents by embodying the ideals of our program and communicating openly and frequently. This is particularly noteworthy in Montedónico, where drug abuse and violence are ubiquitous and social support is not. When Carla, our social work coordinator, joined the team last year, Chelsea put in a lot of work to introduce her to the parents and students of the neighborhood, facilitate the integration of our social work there, and create a more comprehensive plan for community outreach. Together, they set a new standard for our social support that will be a guiding force as we move forward there and in other neighborhoods. As these students are particularly at-risk, the impact of this relationship will ripple through the years in innumerable, unquantifiable ways.
Chelsea’s direct impact on our surf programming was also something to behold. Her passion for surfing shone through during every surf session, as she goofed around with the kids, taught the subtler aspects of the ocean, and motivated everyone to reflect upon their relationship with the environment. One might say that her Southern California “surf vibes” reverberated through the group in a way that enriched the culture of our programming. Students fed off of her energy and used it to challenge themselves and their peers in the ocean, while gaining a deeper appreciation of its constant changes, the creatures that live in it, and the impact it could have on their lives.
The word “community” seems to pop up a lot when talking about Chelsea. She embraced the communities of Valparaiso in the fullest possible sense and in some of the unlikeliest places. First and foremost, she created a culture of inclusion in our neighborhoods by organizing community outreach events, and, upon receiving new students, made sure to maintain clear and supportive communication with parents and students alike. Chelsea took the utmost care in making everybody feel welcome, including new team members. She was usually the first to reach out to new interns and volunteers to organize events and make everybody feel comfortable in their new home. This frequently involved getting outside and taking advantage of Chile’s abundant waves and mountains. She certainly spread “the stoke.”
Our volunteers allow us to actualize all of our programming goals, so the importance of her work cannot be understated. She assumed the role of volunteer coordinator with the utmost professionalism and made it her duty to make everybody feel welcomed and appreciated. This involved a tremendous amount of communication with individual volunteers, large groups, and program coordinators, while managing a very dynamic schedule. Chelsea set a new standard for this position by creating volunteer surf sessions and other events to engage everyone on a deeper level, thus allowing for a more sustainable programming schedule.
At this point you might wonder why I mentioned “the unlikeliest places” earlier; Chelsea’s involvement in the community went beyond the human realm, so to speak. To be clear, I do not mean aliens. While living here, she befriended all manner of street dogs and cats, who are truly an essential and vibrant aspect of our community. In a short walk through Valparaiso, one might encounter twenty or more street dogs, most with the friendliest demeanors imaginable, so, suffice it to say, she found herself many friends in our animal community. While she failed to adopt a VSP dog several times, she eventually adopted Luna Chiquitita, a cat, who now lives with her in Southern California.
So, what are we going to do without her? While we have been lucky enough to receive several new team members since her departure, it’s clear that she left some pretty big shoes to fill. Since this past August, Chelsea has been working as a Case Manager at Laura’s House, an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. In her new role, she provides support, advocacy, and resources to individuals and families during and after their stay, facilitating their ability to lead safer, healthier lives.
Chelsea’s dedication to disenfranchised individuals and communities is awe inspiring and will forever act as a benchmark for our team. She has set the bar incredibly high, so we will have to work hard every day to ensure that our community engagement continues to be of the utmost importance. We miss her dearly, but know that her connection with Valparaiso and with the organization will draw her back someday.