Reflections on a year with the VSP
Over the past six months, many of our interns' time with the Valpo Surf Project has come to an end and we’ve had many new faces join our team. Interns play an important part in our organization, as they are the driving force behind our activities with students and day-to-day operations. From planning, preparing, and executing, they play a major role in making sure our programming is run smoothly and effectively. We are so so grateful for their hard work, compassion, and dedication to our students and the work that we do. I’d like to dedicate this beautiful blog post and reflection on a year with the VSP, written by past intern Will Vietze, to our many incredible interns. We miss you and wish you the best in your current endeavors!
Well, after a year in Chile, after numerous blogs posted, lessons taught and learned, waves caught, students mentored, and ‘roads’ driven, it’s time for me to go. I came down here in search of adventure, looking for new lenses, new friendships, new words, and I’m leaving with that and more. To put the Valpo Surf Project experience into words surely robs it of its beauty, of its nuances, but to do so also seems necessary. We are an organization of stories after all-- a place where lives, from all corners of the globe, come together to create something that transcends the sum of its parts. If you’ve read the blog or scrolled through our social media or, better yet, watched our student testimonials, you are aware of the individual threads that comprise our community. We are not just a surf organization and our kids are not some homogenous mass; there is a vibrancy and diversity that makes our organization truly special. After a year of working in Chile, these stories are what I cherish most and are what I will take back with me to share with friends and family. While there are myriad tales to tell, I’d like to share one from each community to convey this diversity. Cerro Toro To most of our students in Cerro Toro, I am Tío Mochila (Uncle Backpack). Although many of these students don’t even know the origin of the nickname, it’s lasting power has made my real name obsolete. One might assume that the nickname is a product of wearing a backpack often or owning a particularly striking backpack, but in fact, I have not once worn one to class. The name stems from a very ordinary moment.
After a surf session last Spring, I was waiting for the local bus with several students from Cerro Toro when one of them handed me her backpack so she could tie her shoes. I sort of looped the strap around my arms so that it hung there and before I knew it, I had a matching backpack hanging from the other arm. From there, I became a Christmas tree of student backpacks, ornamented in sparkles, flames, ponies, and the like. The bus was delayed, and as such, there was time to kill, so I began to walk around like some giant backpack monster while the kids yelled out “Tío Mochila” in unison. Had there been more students, I’m sure there would have been twenty or more backpacks slung about my arms and legs. Suffice to say, the name stuck. This past summer, when Monserrat, the younger sister of two of our students, joined the program, she referred to me as Tío Mochila despite having no knowledge of the nickname’s origin or my real name for that matter. The name had reached legendary proportions, floating into the realm of myth as many things do in the imagination of young children. I hope that in some way, I was able to live up to that mythology, but I imagine Monse was expecting somebody a bit more awe inspiring.
Funnily enough, a similar thing happened when Seba, the younger brother of another student, joined the program last month. The legend was even more abstract to him, as he asked me several questions about Tío Mochila, having absolutely no idea that he was speaking to the man himself. When I told him that I’m Tío Mochila, his jaw dropped to the floor as if he were speaking to his favorite comic book hero (or was highly disappointed). This story is one of many that embodies our students’ ability to inject magic and humor into the simplest moments. The name has become something far beyond anything I’ve done, strengthening my bond to the community in a way I never expected. While I won’t be here next year, I hope the nickname lives on in some capacity through stories shared or memories held onto. Montedónico In Montedónico, soccer is a way of life. The students don’t just play it; they think about it constantly, they worship their favorite players and teams, and they squeeze it into every free moment imaginable. While our other neighborhoods are interested in the sport, nobody else takes their obsession to that level. As such, soccer has become a natural vehicle for mentorship in Cerro Montedónico.
Most of our games have taken place in the Montedónico YMCA, where there is a small, concrete court with two unnetted goals and some basketball hoops. It’s a classic multi-sport space with a punishing floor, seemingly perpetual puddles, and a lot of cramped spaces to play in. For me, it’s the spatial embodiment of third grade recess. The instant I step onto the court, I feel a rush of nostalgic energy, prepared to talk trash, take a few hits, and set up improbable play after improbable play. I was never any good at the sport to begin with and the kids immediately make me aware that I’m on their turf, playing by their rules. To be clear, these games have never followed a predetermined order; we loosely divide ourselves according to height, age, and ability level, drop the ball, and commence the game. Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about Montedónico students through their style of play.
Joshua and his brother Jostynn are big fans of the hail mary shot; they often line up for a blast the instant it’s possible and nearly took my head off several times. They play with a lot of passion and are not afraid to take some risks when the opportunity arises. Nobody plays the sport more seriously than Alan, who, despite his small size, often elects to alternate between goalie and striker, taking on a lot of responsibility in the process. He has a characteristically serious face most of the time, but will break out in contagious laughter when one of the Tios does something clownish or uncoordinated; I found myself at the receiving end of his giggles many a time. Maxi, a gregarious person almost all of the time, plays with the same fun spirit. He doesn’t mind losing the ball or missing a scoring chance for the sake of testing out a new move or making an improbable play. While I don’t understand all of his trash talk, based on student reactions, I can tell it’s pretty good. Anthony, also known for his ridiculous sense of humor, takes a similar approach to Maxi, complementing it with an incredible touch that often left us with broken ankles. Danitza played all over the field, chipping in where it counted and playing defense when all the guys were singularly focused on scoring. Although she is not that serious about the sport, she is always willing to play, knowing that hilarious antics and banter are bound to follow. Although Fran did not play much, she deserves a shout out for her dedication to English class and her desire to practice while the rest of us are goofing off on the court.
The students of Montedónico bring a lot of energy and humor to everything they do. These soccer related antics find their way into the water as well, further illustrating the power of play to facilitate self expression, growth, and resilience. Laguna Verde Laguna Verde is the hardest for me to write about. For much of my time here, I have been in charge of communication and programming in the community and have grown especially close to the students there. To share one story necessarily excludes another, but I think I’ve landed on the best way to communicate my relationship with them.
We pick our students up outside of the community school, the beating heart of all our activities in Laguna Verde. While some students trickled in and out of attendance there, we had a core group of surfers who had some of the most consistent attendance in the entire program, namely: Vincent, Ghisly, Frantz, Allison, and Diego. Each has a distinct personality that transfers seamlessly to their approach in the water, illustrating the sport’s ability to magnify and support personal expression. While there are so many stories I could tell about the entire crew, having spent so much with each, it’s easiest to recall what a typical day might be like for each.
Vincent, aka Vicente aka Vincenzo aka Vincenzolino, starts his day in the van. Technically, every student starts in the van, as there is no other way to get to the beach, but most sit down quietly, put some earbuds in, and shut their eyes once they hop in. Vincent immediately requests bluetooth access to the speakers and proceeds to play music that can only be described as Chilean Sonic the Hedgehog and a gang of cyborgs laying down abrasive electronic beats for tweens. You know? In the water, Vincent is incredibly dedicated to the sport, improving his technique every single week; it was especially cool to see his lackadaisical personality manifest in a very stylish, idiosyncratic stance. When not on the board, he often finds ways to drift, both mentally and physically, taking a notably passive approach to the currents. He never strayed too far, but would often exit the water with calves like Popeye, as he’d allow water to enter his wetsuit and collect above his ankles. It is also not uncommon to find him in a large hole
Ghisly possesses a tremendous amount of maturity and insight for a 12 year old. She asks inquisitive questions and often makes astute observations about the world. Aside from Vincent, I spent more time with her than any other student and loved watching her progress throughout the year. Though quiet at first, she opened up a tremendous amount, sharing stories about mermaids and mythical creatures, life in Haiti, classmates, and favorite foods. On the surfboard, she constantly challenging herself to pursue larger waves and move farther from the beach. She is fearless and always trusted my guidance in difficult conditions, progressing every single day. Her stance is strong and balanced, always equipped for big, steep waves. Frantz, Ghisly’s younger brother, shares her unique sense of humor. He always finds ways to inject playfulness into any situation and is particularly helpful to the Tios. In the water, Frantz is an incredible athlete, always managing to pop up and maneuver the board with ease. He is still working on his confidence in larger conditions, but has the fundamentals to transition well on more advanced waves. Sadly, Frantz had a lingering cold for several months and didn’t surf as much as he would’ve liked. Despite this setback, Frantz participated enthusiastically in sessions by helping us organize groups, purchase sandwich supplies, unpack gear, and keep track of time. He genuinely loves to help and always goes above and beyond in that regard. Allison is an incredible friend to everyone in the program. She has no shortage of stories to tell, songs to sing, and dance moves to execute perfectly. During most sessions, when not on the board, you could find her engaged in conversation with peers and Tios alike. Her surfing is carefree and confident, but seems to be secondary to the personal connections that sessions facilitate. The water clearly gives her a boost of energy, as her speech often speeds up to challenging speeds when she’s in the water; her open friendliness and talkative nature helped me a lot with my Spanish comprehension over the year. Diego, Allison’s little brother, is one of the cheeriest, most energetic people you could ever meet. He radiates positivity at all times and is obsessed with learning from and spending time with the Tios. He could put a smile on my face even on the toughest of days and inspired me with his positivity. During most sessions, he was very eager to get in the water quickly, bopping around on the shore until he could go in. His dedication to learning the sport is admirable, as he hops on the board quickly and never allows much time to lapse between waves. When he is done surfing, he loves to body surf and was keen to learn the technique last summer. We spent a lot of time together fine tuning the timing and posture necessary to catch waves without a board. While it took him a while to figure out, his positive energy allowed him to do so without any major setbacks. This past year, he taught me a lot about the power of positivity and friendship to transform lives. There are a lot more tales to tell from Laguna Verde, but I’ll leave it at that. Each student brought tremendous humor and insight into my life in equal measure. Cerro Mariposa My strongest memory from Mariposa comes from my first week in Valparaiso. Along with Sadie, a past intern and fellow, I cruised up the hill to a spot known as La Palmera, where a lone palm tree stands in Cerro Mariposa. I was generally confused about the logistics of our trip, but I understood that we would meet a group of students there and walk down the hill as a group. To put it mildly, my Spanish was not up to snuff that first week nor was my comfort level, so meeting a large group of students seemed like a monumental task.
Looking back, this notion seems ridiculous to me, as I know each of them so well, but it was a real concern at the time. The students shuffled over from their houses, mostly noting the early hour and the unseasonably warm winter weather, while Sadie introduced me as they arrived. I said what I could, but it was abundantly clear that I would need to learn a lot more to build the rapport that Sadie had with them. Her sense of humor, both absurd and heartwarming, translated to Spanish seamlessly and the kids immediately rose from the morning daze when she began to speak. I was inspired and intimidated in equal measure. As we made our way down from Mariposa, the Pacific opened up before us, cast in uninhibited sunlight. A pack of cheerful dogs followed us as we snaked our way down the hill and for the first time since I had arrived, I felt at home. The magic of the city and of our students revealed itself in that moment and continued throughout that day. After making our way down from the hill and through the flat section of the city, with dog entourage still intact, we waited for the bus to the beach. Álvaro, who had already impressed me with his English skills, asked me if I wanted to sit on the bus with him. I doubt Alvaro realized how impactful that question was; the fear of being unable to communicate evaporated immediately. Anyone who knows Álvaro knows that he is passionate about video games. It should be said that his passion does not simply stem from a desire to play them at all hours, but a true curiosity about their design and the way in which their stories are told. His sister works for a small company that designs games and Álvaro aspires to design them as well. This topic popped up immediately as we sat down and remained our central subject for nearly an hour on the bus. While I didn’t have much to add to our conversation in terms of actual knowledge, it was really refreshing to hear Alvaro speak at such length, in his second language, about something he truly cares about. As an English teacher, I always encourage students to find topics they care deeply about, as it is much easier to speak from a place of passion than a place of obligation.
Álvaro eased my initial fear tremendously throughout that conversation and ensured that, no matter what, I would have somebody to talk to when Spanish became too overwhelming. This is not to say that I didn’t come down here to learn the language, but to point out that Álvaro immediately raised my comfort level and provided an entryway into our student communities. While I can’t recall the exact details (video game jargon) of our conversation that day, I can recall the joy of speaking with him and learning about his interests. His recollection and narration of minute details, the arc of the story, and the trajectory of each character was engaging and inspiring in a way that still sticks with me; it’s rare to meet a person who can do so in his or her first language, let alone a second. That day remains a pivotal moment in my time here, marking the first time in which I felt truly at home. His language acumen inspired me to take my own learning process more seriously, demonstrating the beautiful moments and opportunities that arise from communicating in a second language. From that moment forward, I had both an established comfort zone and a plan for expanding it, hoping to build a similar friendship with as many students as possible. That conversation altered the trajectory of my time here by giving me both a clear goal and the optimism that I could achieve it. Interested in interning with the Valpo Surf Project? Head to our website for more information!