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Dec 11, 2017

Inner City Stoke

Eddie Donnellan is motivating kids in the Bay Area by getting them in the water. By Andreas Tzortzis. Photographed by Jeff Johnson

Eddie Donnellan’s surfing origin story had nothing to do with sun-kissed dawns on perfect, peeling breaks off the California coast, surrounded by precocious talents carving up waves on newly purchased shortboards.


Donnellan’s first exposure to what became the passion that now informs his work with at-risk youth involved the cold, current-riven surf spots off Stinson Beach, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a break he’d get to by hitchhiking from the rough neighborhood of San Rafael where he lived with his single mother. The only other person out there was the troubled kid—a recent transplant from Hawaii—who introduced him to the sport as a 14-year-old.

He’d surf on too-short boards in a chunky wetsuit that gave him a rash, burying his board in the sand afterward to save carting it all the way back home.

"There’s the selfishness of what you get from surfing,” says Donnellan, now 48 and more than three decades removed from those early experiences. “But there’s also trying to describe what surfing does for you and why you need it. For me it stuck and it’s never gone away. And it’s for better or for worse: it’s cancelled out some things in my life. It’s messed up relationships, it’s screwed me up at work. But it’s worth it.”

It’s cancelled out some things in my life. It’s messed up relationships, it’s screwed me up at work. But it’s worth it.|

The sport’s demands—sometimes obsessive dedication, freezing early mornings changing into awkward wetsuits—are balanced out by the serenity and the escape the ocean can provide. Donnellan decided he wanted to do more with those moments than just keep them for himself.

Together with lifelong friend and surfing buddy Tim Gras, he started MeWater, a nonprofit that brings the most emotionally troubled kids from San Francisco’s inner city to the wide-open beach breaks of Marin county and gives them their first taste of the freedom of a life spent on the ocean.

“We’re not trying to create surfers,” he says. “We’re trying to create experiences where you’re able to overcome this wall—whatever wall it is, because there’s so many for these kids and these families, where they live.”

We’re not trying to create surfers. We’re trying to create experiences where you’re able to overcome this wall—whatever wall it is.|

The majority of MeWater’s participants come from the Edgewood Center, the oldest children’s charity on the West Coast and the place Donnellan has worked since his late twenties. Occupying a full city block, the center’s mission has changed slightly since it was founded in 1851, evolving from an orphanage for children left behind in the Gold Rush into its current focus: helping kids from the most embattled homes.

“It’s a lot of neglect, of physical and sexual abuse. They’re products of their environment,” he says. “The case histories are...you’ll just go home and hug your kids. But these kids exist, and you’d be surprised. Some of these kids…the resilience, to even stay alive….”

Donnellan knows something about that resilience. He fought his way through three years of Catholic school and rebelled as a teenager, seeking out skateboarding and the music of punk pioneers like the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. His mother started an ESL program in Marin, and during the course of his teens, she invited two families from El Salvador to stay in their small home. Donnellan went from being the only child to having to share a room with a total stranger, something with which he predictably struggled.

“Having somebody who teaches you it’s OK to give and it’s OK to care,” was one of his mother’s most important lessons, he says. “But I’ve also witnessed the burdens of over-giving and over-caring. And I have an edge based on that. As I’ve gotten older that’s gone down a little bit, but I struggled with my mom over-giving because it had an impact on me.”

Time has shown that these experiences have helped make him who he is today. When he was invited, at 28, to take a group of rowdy kids from Edgewood bike riding in Marin, his mother’s example came full circle.

“It took us an hour to get them all together a couple of kids tried to run away and it was so loose,” he says,  “but I was in my element, and I thought, ‘These kids are rad!'”

He soon went to work for the center, and has been there ever since. During a four-month break in 2015 he started MeWater together with Gras, toiling over grant applications and liability insurance forms in his garage. The path to starting and growing a nonprofit is not for the easily discouraged, but guiding him was the conviction that surfing’s healing powers could be transferred to others.

“He’s really made a difference in a lot of kids’ lives,” Edgewood’s medical director Robin Randall said in the recent documentary Fishpeople, which included Donnellan’s story. “I’ve seen kids sort of before and after, and that sense of connection to the ocean, that sense of belonging, and that sense of calm that comes over them after they begin to master surfing is really incredible. Eddie knows how to connect with the kids in the way their formal therapist or their psychiatrist might not be able to.”

A lot of that can be attributed to Donnellan’s no-nonsense manner. Standing more than 6-feet tall with burly surfer shoulders and possessing a toughness that has him shrugging off the 50-degree temperatures to sit, jacket-less, in the back patio of a Sunset district pizza joint to tell his story, Donnellan doesn’t come off as someone who wins over teens by over-empathizing.

But maybe it’s something else: that he’s as in awe of the kids as they are of him.

What the kids have taught me is that they’re the most important thing.|

“They showed up somewhere, they didn’t know what they were doing they didn’t know who they were going to be with,” he says. “When I was a kid, I don’t think I would've been able to do that. These are brave children and they’re brave because in their daily lives they’re seeing stuff that blows that away on so many different levels… What the kids have taught me is that they’re the most important thing.”

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