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San Clemente Journal


Feb 01, 2003 08:31PM ● By Don Kindred
by Christiaan Sorense

     People always seem to be yearning to catch the brass ring. In San Clemente, Mitch Colapinto has managed to seize the proverbial brass ring with both hands, and is sharing it with local kids and those from around the world.

     Colapinto is a teacher at Truman Benedict Elementary School here in the village. He has been teaching for 10 years, currently teaches fourth grade and cannot get enough of his job. That is usually reason enough for most people to rest on their laurels, and spend their free time taking care of themselves. Mitch Colapinto is not one of those people.

     An enthusiastic, energetic citizen who relishes the opportunity to pass on a hobby both physically and spiritually fulfilling, when he isn’t teaching, Mitch also runs a sports camp in town called Cola’s Surf Camp. His wife of six years, Camille, works by his side, lending a helping hand to process the paperwork and handle the administrative issues.

     Cola’s Surf Camp is a week long adventure that teaches children water safety and ocean awareness as well as how to catch a wave and ride it like the big boys do. It is held each summer at a spot called Poche (pronounced poach-ee) Beach, at the north end of San Clemente.

     Having been a California State Lifeguard for 18 years, Colapinto has spent a lot of time in or around the Pacific Ocean. The splendid combination of his love of working with children and his talent for knowing how to handle the ocean, led him to start up this camp, and it is now going into its sixth year of operation.

     The camp’s sessions run Monday through Friday from 9am-3pm. It caters to children ages 7-14, accommodates about 35-40 kids per session, and has a ratio of about seven kids per instructor. A proportion unheard of at most sports camps.

     Cola’s encompasses many different elements of surfing, whether it be ducking under the white water, turning around and catching the white water, or learning how to turn and handle a surfboard while on a wave. It also offers boogie boarding and skim boarding lessons. And its campers can be found playing games and singing songs, and at the end of each session enjoying a huge pizza party to commemorate the week-long introduction to the world of surfing.

     The instructors employed at camp have much in common, specifically a passion for working with children and a love of the ocean. One local family, the Hennings, have had three children work as instructors at the camp - Steve Hennings, a professional skateboarder, Dave Hennings, who fell in love with working with kids to the point of becoming a teacher, and Julie Hennings, who got married on the sand last year in a mock ceremony. She walked down an aisle lined with seaweed, with children from the surf camp acting as witnesses to the union.

     Even the site where the camp is held makes perfect sense. Poche Beach boasts a soft, slow rolling wave that is ideal for learning how to surf. Another bonus of holding camp at Poche is its sandy bottom, that keeps kids from having to walk into the water on jagged rocks, or be put in a position where they could fall off their board and get scraped up.

     According to Mitch, the camp is generally filled with a high percentage of local children, with a sprinkling of kids from places like Colorado and New Jersey. Just last summer he was even privileged to host a boy from Germany. He also revealed that lately girls have been making a charge into his camps, showing up in larger numbers and picking up surfing quicker than their male counterparts.

     This summer, Cola’s is looking to embark on a new angle. Colapinto has decided to introduce inner city kids to the beach and surfing. This new twist will entail having these children, some of which have never seen the ocean let alone touched it, learn to surf and play in the water safely. They will be taught many valuable lessons about handling the ocean, enabling them to carry tales to their friends back home about how they learned to surf.

     Because the camp is offering these unique sessions free of charge to these underprivileged children, Mitch is still actively seeking a sponsor or two to help him in this benevolent venture. Classes for the regular sessions run $250 for the week, and the list of sponsors is growing withrespectable local and international corporations and businesses, like Oakley, Rusty, Rocky’s Surf, Ocean Minded, Roxy, Surfing Magazine, Pizza Plus and Signs Plus.

     Colapinto tells a story of how he brought his son, Griffin, to camp last year, and remembers when the waves were picking up and some of the campers were being intimidated by the size of the surf. Paddling out with his son, Mitch let Griffin catch a few of the larger waves. After seeing that a 4-year-old was able to handle the larger waves, the campers were eager to show that they, too, could handle the big surf.

      For Mitch Colapinto, the best part of his surf camp is the moment when a child stands up on a wave for the first time. He relishes in making it possible for lots of kids to go home each summer night not only exhausted from surfing all day, but giddy with the excitement of how they stood up on a wave, reliving every intricate detail of how it all went down. The utter joy and stoke these kids exude make all Colapinto’s efforts worthwhile.

Cola’s Surf Camp can be reached at (949) 636-1419.
This year, a percentage of the profits made
by the camp will be donated to the Surfrider Foundation.