In Conversation with the Surf Cerrito Founders
A previous Surf Cerrito volunteer Thibaud Sulzer sat down with the Surf Cerrito co-founders to find out a bit more about the Surf Cerrito story.
Surf Cerrito is a surf therapy organisation based in Northern Peru, whose mission is to empower the young people of the community of Cerrito de la Virgen and beyond through surfing. I have had the chance to work with the charity and got to chat with both co-founders about the project. They are Daisy, a British ocean lover who loves to foster connections using water, and Brayan Hilario , a local Cerrito surf instructor who wants to help his local community benefit from his favourite sport. Here is our conversation below:
Left: Surf Cerrito co-founder Brayan. Right: Surf Cerrito co-founder Daisy
Thibaud: Tell me about how the idea of Surf Cerrito started?
Brayan: I met Daisy in October 2021. We got chatting and I told her about my story, about how I tried to take kids from my hometown in Cerrito and teach them to surf, to give back to the community that had helped me. But it fell through because there wasn’t much help. Then she told me she had the same idea, so we began to talk more!
Daisy: The water has always been my happy place, and I was already working with kids in Cerrito for another charity. When I saw that they didn’t have access to the ocean and to surf, that propelled me to do something about it and Brayan came to me with the idea it all made sense. The previous charity I was working for didn’t have any funds for us, so I thought let’s give this idea a go. So we began to raise funds.
Brayan: We started talking to a friend who had a surf shop, Onechako Surf School. He said yes why not, he helped us with wetsuits, boards and the surf school. At the beginning we started with three kids, because the parents were scared of the uncertainty – as you know parents can be weary. Even so we carried on, and then more and more came. Today we have up to 30 kids each session!
Above: The first group of Surf Cerrito learners, outside Onechako Surf Shop
T: Why did you choose Cerrito as a location?
Daisy The more I worked in Cerrito, the more the community interested me. Most moved here from mining towns, which in 1997 suffered from major flooding due to the ‘el Niño’ phenomenon. They arrived here with almost nothing and were only offered basic materials to build their homes from scratch. The government had promised to help with things such as running water, but still to this day neglect the community, which now relies on non-profits and people for help.
Although this community has so little, they go above and beyond to make you feel part of the family, and it’s one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been. So I wanted to give back in a way that was sustainable and positive for the children and community of Cerrito. It's a place that’s majorly lacking space for kids to play, learning and education, and so we wanted to provide that opportunity. At first people were confused to a surf school being 15 minutes from the beach, but it was super important for the kids to know that they have a safe space to learn, be honest and have someone to trust and rely on, within their community.
Brayan: I was born and grew up here. I’m grateful for the people that have taught me, raised me and helped me here. So I thought, why not give back what I received? I used to skate a lot and received help from volunteers. Eventually when I was 13 or 14 I became a volunteer for my own community too, and afterwards became an assistant for a surf school in the more built up town of Huanchaco, about 15 minutes from Cerrito. But my objective has always been: what’s going to happen to my town?
I’m not going to continue living the same way, seeing people dying of hunger, not having water. I see people who complain about the government, but we can work together without these external people. I’m tired of seeing false promises, and I’m thankful to the project that I have because we try to help the kids directly with surfing.
How have surfing and the ocean helped the development of the young generation here?
Brayan: Since becoming a surf coach, my relationship with surfing has gotten bigger and I’ve realised how much it’s changed me. I’d go in the water and all the stress would go away, I’d forget myself. Surfing makes you happy, it makes you hungry, tired. It’s my happy time and has helped me change into a more well-rounded person. And I’ve seen the change in the kids at Surf Cerrito too.
When we first started, the older kids didn’t used to say hi. They just did their thing, and I gave them space because I get it, they’re young and don’t know you well. But now everyone says hi, they do their homework, and they ask for permission for things. It makes me proud to get up in the morning each day because I feel I changed something positive in them, from greetings to respect.
Daisy: In Northern Peru, there’s evidence of people surfing reed boats 4000 years ago (possibly the first evidence of surfing!). Yet people that live 15 minutes away from that same beach don’t swim, they don’t have access to the beach and don’t enjoy what us Westerners fly across the world to enjoy. So it’s quite a symbolic thing that the kids can access the ocean. Just that is important. There’s a lot of inequity in surfing and we’re trying to open up the accessibility of it.
What’s amazing is that now the kids view the ocean as a place of enjoyment rather than fear. When we first started, the kids wouldn’t want to go on the boards, they would run into the Ocean and run straight back out, but now almost 2 years later they grab boards and run in without even asking for help. It’s that self-belief and confidence that all of them have gained from the ocean that makes them feel safe in the water.
Above: A young learner gaining in surfing confidence
Which direction would you like to see Surf Cerrito go in coming years?
Daisy: I’d like to reach out to more kids along the Peruvian coastline, where there’s also lots of inequality. It would be encouraging equal opportunity and access to the water so that every person in Peru can experience the benefits of surfing.
Brayan: I’d like to help kids find their talent, and to support them with each dream, whether that’s surfing, art or whatever it may be. I want the kids to grow in the direction they want. And I’d also like to find someone who represents us in Cerrito, not just with surfing but for the town, so that people know what and where Cerrito is.
Have you got any highlights from Surf Cerrito?
Brayan: Yes, building the surf school. I told my mum about this idea, and she told me to ‘dream more and do it’. She gave me a hug and a blessing, and then with Daisy’s dad and family we got to work. A strong memory was being on the roof, finishing the final touches and seeing everyone helping. This memory goes to my mum, Daisy’s dad and all the kids with whom we got a photo when we opened. It coincided with my birthday and I couldn’t have thought of a better present.
Daisy: I have two: First, When we first opened the school, all the kids and families came and Brayan did speeches to explain what we were doing. People didn’t really get it, but one of the mum’s stood up and said: “I just wanted to say thank you to Brayan and Daisy. My sons have been going since almost the first lesson and they’ve been obsessed ever since. It’s given me time to look for work, do house chores, to focus on myself and they’re so much happier for it”.
And secondly, I was with one of the smaller girls, whose mum trusted me to take her to the sea, and to be there for that moment with a child going in the sea for the first time was an incredible feeling.
Any final words?
Daisy: The sea is dirty here (due to pollution in the nearby city), but the sense of community and respect in the water is unlike anywhere else I've seen. I like the quote ‘you protect what you love’ and if we can teach the kids to love the ocean and love surfing, hopefully they’ll be ambassadors to protect that space and teach their families.
Brayan: I promise that I’ll never abandon the kids. I’m 100% with them and if money runs out, I’ll do everything I can. If it means taking 3 boards on my head to the beach I’ll do it. And we’re not going to stop surfing. We’ve started now and we won’t stop. I’m going to keep going with them.
Above: Some of the Surf Cerrito group today, with Brayan, Daisy and all the volunteers
For more information and to donate to the charity, visit surfcerrito.org or contact email@example.com