Riding the wave of empowerment.
By Judy Foreman
“Community, camaraderie and confidence (one wave at a time)” is the mission statement for Alelia Parenteau’s dynamic program that empowers women and girls by teaching them to surf. Born in Canada, Parenteau learned to surf after graduating from college, while living in Maui. She ultimately followed the waves and moved to Santa Barbara, where she met her husband, Thomas Oretsky, a surfing devotee who is also her partner in raising their two young sons, ages three and five, and operating their Central Coast surf school. Breaking down the barriers that prevent women from the male-dominated sport of surfing has been her passion since creating this program in 2013.
The idea for a women-only surf school in Santa Barbara came to her between raising her kids and her day job working in the field of sustainability for the City of Santa Barbara. For groups of up to six, the program provides wetsuits and boards, as well as teachers who pick up the students and head out to beaches ranging from Mondo’s in Ventura all the way to Goleta to find the best waves. Thus far, the program has taught more than 300 women and girls from ages 5–73 to surf. The mean age of participants is 35-60.
Surf like a Girl and iSurf are the Central Coast’s only surf schools dedicated to empowering women of all ages through the sport of surfing. Although a young school, with Parenteau at the helm, it is making great strides in providing access to surf lessons to anyone interested in learning, regardless of their financial situation. By providing an affordable summer camp in partnership with Santa Barbara’s Parks and Recreation Division, unbeatable annual membership pricing and a super-affordable after-school program, iSurf ensures that anyone who wants to can get into the water and surf.
Even so, after two years in business, Parenteau saw a gap in their offerings: the need to start a fund that helped underserved girls in the community learn to surf. Thus, Surf Like a Girl Foundation was born (previously called Watergirl Fund), which gets girls ages 5–15 surfing. Two years in, Parenteau and Oretsky have provided more than 600 surf sessions for girls who otherwise would not have had access to this sport.
On June 4, iSurf’s fundraising event—Run to Surf (RuntoSurf.com)—takes place at Leadbetter Beach. The event is a 5K run, 1-mile paddle and beach obstacle course designed by Santa Barbara fitness guru Jenny Schatzle (see Summer Style File page 26) with all proceeds going to Surf like a Girl.
Additionally, iSurf hosts its 3rd annual iSurf Block Party on September 3, which Parenteau describes as an epic gala at Casa De La Guerra. Tickets, which include dinner, drinks and entertainment, are $40 in advance and $50 at the door. All proceeds benefit Surf like a Girl Foundation.
Whether it is the cost, big waves, the wet suit, bad hair days, cold water, heavy boards or just plain emotional fear of the unknown, Parenteau feels her most important message is that “I want everyone to be able to break down the barriers that prevent a woman or young girl from learning to surf, no matter what is holding them back, including their financial situation. I feel that surfing is one of those outlets that challenges the brain, spirit and resolve, and people come out better for it.”
For more information, visit isurfschool.com or call 805/699-5371.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.