Camp Yellow Ribbon Teaches Kids Surfing
If you’ve been at the beach in Del Mar in the past week, you might have seen a group of about 20 youngsters in bright yellow T-shirts, wading into the surf to ride the waves for the very first time. Camp Yellow Ribbon is a summer camp for children of military families.
Next to a big tent halfway down the beach, half a dozen kids are standing on surfboards that are taller than they are, practicing their surfing stance with their instructor.
“Look down at your feet,” she tells them. “If they are not right at the center of the board and facing sideways, move up and that’s the position you should be in.”
Once in the ocean, the children spend over an hour practicing for real, and several of them are remarkably successful at getting up and staying up on the boards. After well over an hour they straggle back up the beach, surf boards in tow.
“It was really fun,” gasps one small girl. "It was my first time!"
“She was awesome,” her trainer says. “They were all so scared, and then got out there and every single one of them stood up.”
The 7-year-old’s blue eyes are gleaming and her cheeks are flushed with the thrill of getting up on a surfboard.
“It was like you’re running on the water,” she says. “Or like you’re flying just a little bit over it,”
Sitting down on the sand and wrapping herself in a towel, she tells me a little about herself. “My name is Madison, Madison Gay. I live on base”
Madison says she lives near the beach in Oceanside but she’s never done tried surfing before. She is one of the children who have come from Camp Pendleton Marine Base; others have dads or moms stationed at Naval Base San Diego. All of them have seen their active duty parent leave home for long periods of time.
“My dad went a way a couple of times,” Madison says. “Like when he first went to work, he took all his things to get deployed, and now he’s just going to work every day and coming back, so I’m happy about that.”
Madison’s dad is home for now, but other deployments are almost inevitably in his future. It’s something Madison has in common with all the kids at this camp… they know what it’s like to have a parent who regularly disappears for months at a time and then reappears, creating a difficult emotional cycle of family life.
“My mom kept me busy, so I wouldn’t think about him,” says Madison. “But at school one day when he left I started crying. But my teacher told me he was there but invisible just beside me. That helped a lot.”
Johnnie McLaughlin, coordinator of Camp Yellow Ribbon in San Diego, says the children of marines and sailors fighting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are having a different experience from children in previous wars
“Right now we’ve got a generation of children,” McLaughlin says. “Many of these children have been born after the war started, so they have gone through their whole life with a parent that has gone on repeated deployments now for the last eight years.”
McLaughlin says the cycle of repeated deployments is taking a toll on children.
“They’ve been trying to cope with the single parent," he says. “Trying to support the other siblings within the family, and on top of that, always that overriding factor, will my mom or will my dad come back from the conflict?”
Even though Madison suffers though her father’s long absences, she says she wants to be in the military too when she grows up. “My dad’s a gunnery sergeant,” she says. “And he does a lot of work and just makes me think I want to do it too. I want to show him I can be strong and do stuff like that.
“What does your mom say to that?” I ask.
“Well, I haven’t told her yet,” she replied
Spending a week at camp learning new things has opened up new possibilities for Madison. She’s discovered a whole new love of being on the water.
“Yesterday the ship tour was fun, because you learn how to control the boat. It was a big boat, but there was these other boats that were huge," she says. "Tomorrow we’re going hiking. I’m not too excited about that. And we’re going to go snorkeling on Friday and have a barbecue, so that’s what I’m really excited about.”
More than 100 children from military families are attended Camp Yellow Ribbon in San Diego this year. They are just a few of the thousands whose families are focused on survival, not of war, but of the everyday life cycle of repeated deployments