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Sayulita Jr SUP Team: Developing Paddlers and Improving Lives

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It hasn’t been an easy journey, but few great things in life ever are. Shelby Taylor and Bicho Jimenez, founders of the Sayulita Jr SUP Team, made the decision in 2015 to set up a SUP training program for the kids in the iconic Mexican coastal town of Sayulita after a season as professional SUP athletes exposed them to young paddler development programs around the world. Drawing early inspiration from The Paddle Academy in Dana Point, California, the couples’ shared life experiences soon placed them together on a path which seemingly has no limits in imparting life skills and paddling knowledge on the children of Sayulita.

“Living in Sayulita we saw that there was a real lack, almost an emptiness, of things for children to do. The town is bustling with things to do, but not really on the front of the youth,” Shelby told me. “There is also the ever-growing issue of as tourism grows in Sayulita, so does the dark side…more drugs, more partying, more crime.”

The latter issue was poignantly driven home when two young boys they were close to found themselves in trouble with the police. One was 11 and the other was 13 – both had been arrested for selling meth.

“That was really hard for us to see. Kids that young with such potential, these incredible athletes and that was the life they had chosen and there wasn’t much we could do about it,” said Shelby.

The incident proved to be the catalyst which compelled Shelby and Bicho to form the Sayulita Jr SUP Team. “Even if it was just five kids or 10 kids, we both felt we needed to do something about it,” Shelby told me.

Building the Sayulita Jr SUP Team

Although they were both juggling the hectic international travel schedule of a season competing as full-time athletes, Shelby and Bicho pulled together a group of roughly 15 kids and began training them in between competitions. An initial hurdle was just acquiring the basics: boards and paddles, as many of families of the children they were targeting were not in a financial position to purchase the necessary equipment which can easily run close to $2,000. After a little work, the determined couple managed to cobble together a fleet of used, beat up boards from throughout the town for each of the children to use.

Since those early days, the group incrementally grew to 20, then 30. Local investors and the school began to take note of their success and dedication to the program and stepped in to provide much needed financial assistance. Combined with a personal loan, Shelby and Bicho were able to purchase a pack of 20 boards from China.

“We got uniforms and t-shirts printed and began holding bi-monthly races. When all of this came together, it was really the first organized team activity for kids in the town. We thought the likelihood of kids wanting to race wouldn’t be that great, but in reality it was the total opposite,” Shelby told me.

Embraced by the community

Shelby works as an English teacher in a local school and began to steer some of the high risk children from the community towards the program. “For me, growing up in team sports I really know the powerful value that team sports give to children…the kinds of life lessons you learn which are not taught at home,” said Shelby.

Through paddling, the playing field has been leveled as the ocean proved once again to be a great equalizer. And just as the ocean swells travel a great distance, the effects of the program have reached beyond the shore and have enriched the lives of the children and the community as a whole in ways Shelby and Bicho never imagined.

Much to their surprise, the kids in the program enthusiastically embraced the competitive side of SUP and in a somewhat unintended consequence, the Sayulita Jr SUP Team has become much more than an activity to occupy the time of Sayulita’s youth. The program’s warm embrace and willingness to adapt to the environment has matured into an extended family encompassing a wide strata of children from different social and economic backgrounds.

Today, there are 72 children on the roster of the Sayulita Jr SUP Team ranging from age 7 – 17 and another 20 on a waiting list due to the lack of equipment necessary to participate. Shelby and Bicho currently run three groups a day from the time the children are released from school until dark. There is a Monday/Wednesday cadre and a Tuesday/Thursday cadre. Then on Fridays, everyone comes together for a cross-training session on land.

In addition to training, the program holds two compulsory community service days a month, typically a beach clean up, and requires all young paddlers participating in the program on scholarship to maintain the equivalent of a “B” average in school. Then, every other month, the Sayulita Jr SUP Team holds a highly anticipated local race which is widely embraced by the community of Sayulita.

“The response from the community has been incredibly big and positive and more than we ever imagined,” said Shelby. Several of the larger businesses in town sponsor children each month and the local school offers the equivalent of a gym credit to program participants.

The team is approximately 60% local Mexican youth and 40% children of local American expats. “At the beginning of the program there was a huge distinction between the Mexican and American children,” said Shelby. It was a phenomenon which played out in the classroom as well where the two groups would typically self segregate themselves and sit on opposite sides of the classroom.

“Now the kids are all really good friends. Their parents are really good friends. The classrooms have meshed. Their language skills, both in English and Spanish, have improved. It’s the coolest part because we now have this huge family of kids which don’t know a distinction. They are all just teammates. They all show up and wear the same uniform, the same board, the same paddles, and are all on an even scale and we just get in the water with them each day and teach them to be safe and to be nice to each other,” said Shelby.

“People call me and Bicho the ‘Mommy and Daddy ducks’ of town!” said Shelby. “It has really changed our lives and put pressure on us, but pressure in a good way. The commitment is really a lot, but it is really rewarding. It is like ‘fun’ commitment, if that makes sense, Shelby told me.

Seeing kids who couldn’t swim or paddle learning to navigate in and out of the waves and surf like champs is one of the program’s rewards. Another is the rejuvenating effect the children have had on the lives of Shelby and Bicho.

“It is an incredible family we’ve developed and no matter how bad my day was, I just walk out my door and go to practice. Kid’s are cool, they haven’t been tainted by society yet. Their energy is pure. If they’re happy, they’re happy. If they’re sad, they’re sad. It is just rejuvenating to be able to go with the kids…they adore me and Bicho,” said Shelby.

Best of all, they keep coming back!

The Sayulita Jr SUP Team is currently running a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to purchase the additional equipment necessary to support their growing roster. If you are interested in contributing to their campaign, please visit: www.gofundme.com/sayulitajrsupteam

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