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Mauli Ola Foundation, A Breath of Fresh Air

How some of the world's toughest surfers are helping kids with cystic fibrosis

Former pro Hans Hagen and big wave charger Kala Alexander share the aloha with a young fellow champion.

Hawaiian big-wave surfer Kala Alexander and former world champion surfer Sunny Garcia have some of the heaviest reputations in the sport. No one messes with these guys. Alexander, who has the words “WOLF PAK” tattooed on his knuckles along with shark-black eyes and a stare to back them up, built a reputation on “regulating” crowds at Pipeline, the world’s most dangerous wave – act stupid and endanger Alexander or one of his friends and the last thing you might remember is a WOLF PAK tattoo coming straight at your jaw. And Garcia, who recently completed the Hawaiian Ironman, was known for intimidating opponents into giving him any wave he wanted during heats – even when they had priority.
In short, these men are tough, they surf waves bigger than your house, and they strike fear into anything with a brain.

They also do more for kids than 99 percent of the people you know. Specifically, they take kids with cystic fibrosis surfing. Hundreds, in fact, over the past eight years, ages 3 to 17. Those kids don’t cower in the wake of Alexander or Garcia; they consider them heroes, friends and allies in their daily fight for normalcy.

“Yes, before you’d hear the name Kala and it could be a little scary,” says James Dunlop, the co-founder of the Orange County-based Mauli Ola Foundation, which tours the country taking kids with cystic fibrosis  surfing, and for which Alexander is vice president. “But he’s actually one of the nicest guys of all time. In fact, he’s been taking CF kids and families out surfing on his own without telling anyone. He just loves to help the kids.”
As for Garcia? He spent an entire month touring the country with the Mauli Ola Foundation this past summer – while training for the Hawaiian IronMan. “He told me it was more of a grind than when he was on (the surfing world championship tour), but he never complained and was always there for the kids. Sunny has a huge heart,” Dunlop says.

And while surfing a wave with Alexander or Garcia is certainly a thrill and always puts a smile on these kids’ faces, it also has another, equally important benefit: It actually makes them breathe easier.

In 2007, the year that the Mauli Ola Foundation was formed, that fact was completely unknown, however. Dunlop’s brother Charles, a surfer and geneticist, showed him a New England Journal of Medicine article about the benefits of saline treatments for cystic fibrosis patients. For years, the Orange County brothers had been trying to help CF patients through their leading genetics testing company, Ambry Genetics. They knew that the disease was a particularly cruel one; it reduces lung function, sometimes catastrophically, and condemns these kids to dozens of medications, hospitalizations, and invasive treatments. Basically, it rips the fun right out of being a kid. So when the brothers read about the saline therapy detailed in the journal, they both had the same seemingly crazy thought: “We should take these kids surfing.”

As scientists working toward a cure for CF, they immediately saw the potential for surfing to act as a natural saline treatment. As lifelong, diehard surfers, they immediately saw the potential for it to be a really, really fun one.

“In the hospital, CF patients do something called hypersonic saline treatments, where they breathe in warm salt air while at the same time wearing a vest that bangs on their backs to discharge the mucus (from their lungs),” James Dunlop says. “Going in the ocean is the natural equivalent of that treatment. Essentially, the salt brings up the mucus so they can get it out of their lungs and breathe easier.”

The Dunlop brothers knew they had to bring top surfers on board to ensure the kids’ safety, so they looked to Hawaii’s legendary North Shore, home to Pipeline, Sunset, and half the world’s great watermen. The brothers had been making annual treks there since they were kids, and during that time they had gotten on Alexander’s good side after staying at a house next door to his. And if it seems like a man with legendary scowls and a fistful of tattoos would be an odd choice to help start a philanthropic effort – to benefit mostly “haoles” no less – Dunlop says nothing could be further from the truth. Alexander needed no convincing.
“I’ll do anything I can to help kids. They’re innocent and have their whole lives ahead of them. Or should have their whole lives ahead of them,” Alexander says. “So anything I could do to make the quality of their lives a little better and make them feel like normal kids and have a sense of accomplishment, I’m all for it.”

Still, Dunlop had no idea what to expect. After all, he was about to take a bunch of kids, many of whom would be challenged by their school’s PE class, and throw them in the ocean to try a sport that regularly kicks the you-know-what’s of first-timers of any age.

But from the first Mauli Ola Surf Experience Day, held at Newport Beach, it went better than they could have ever hoped. Thanks to the world-class watermen by their side, the kids did great, breathed easier, and, possibly most importantly, enjoyed a day where their biggest worry was which surf star they’d ride waves with next. All while getting a healing saline treatment.

Mauli Ola (meaning “Breath of Life”) was an unconditional hit.

Soon, calls from the parents of young CF patients began coming in. A lot of them, and from all over the country. Everyone wanted to go surfing. “So we decided to go for it,” Dunlop said.

They started taking more and more kids with CF surfing, and the events became bigger than just an oceanic saline treatment/kids fun day, Dunlop says. Since cross-contamination among CF patients is a real threat (during surfing days, the kids remain at least 10 feet apart), the parents of kids with CF seldom get together. But during the Mauli Ola events, while the kids were in the water, their families were on the beach getting to know one another – and giving each other strength. The events became a sort of support group. With a really great view.

After a few years of doing Surf Experience Days, Dunlop wanted to kick it up a notch and reach more kids, so he rented a tour bus and hit the road for up to three months every year, bringing pro surfers and surf stoke to hospital wards and beaches around the nation. It worked so well that they ended up buying their own five-star tour bus. “Yeah, basically, like a rock band bus,” Dunlop says, laughing.

And of course, he’s filled it with the rock stars of surfing. Everyone from world champs like Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia to big-wave chargers like Alexander and Jason Magallenes have joined the tour at one time or another. They, more than anyone, know the power of waves. And because of that, they are humbled by the experience of the Mauli Ola tour.
“The thing about surfing is it’s saved a lot of lives. It definitely saved mine,” says Garcia, whose been with Mauli Ola for eight years. “I was a troubled child and had I not started surfing, my life would probably be a lot different than it is today. Sharing that with anyone is important, but sharing surfing with kids that are less fortunate and knowing I’m going to put a smile on their face and take away their pain, even for a little bit of time, is huge.”

He says that while the tour can be a grind it’s also some of the most rewarding time he’s spent in the ocean. Sometimes, he says, families will drive five hours or more just so their child can go surfing.

“I had a little girl who drove out to Virginia Beach from Michigan just to do the surf day. When you hear that, it makes you feel so good. It’s a huge honor,” Garcia said.

In fact, sometimes the surfing experience does more than change a family’s weekend plans. It changes their life. Some of the families of the kids they’ve taken surfing have moved to the coast just so their kids can keep their surfing therapy going. And it’s helped. One boy moved from Chicago to California just to keep surfing and his lung function went from 85 percent to 95 percent.

“To see some of these families change their whole life and base them around the ocean is great. It’s awesome to see the kids become more avid surfers, laughing, smiling, and having something to look forward to like surfing that also helps them breathe better,” Alexander says.

But Alexander also admits that it’s not all fun in the sun.

“It takes a lot out of you, especially the hospital visits. Emotionally, even physically, I get tired, but I can’t imagine not doing it. These kids need to know that people other than their parents want them to have a better life and are pulling for them,” he says.

His and Garcia’s longtime friend and fellow Mauli Ola surfer Magallenes echoes those sentiments. He’s done the full nationwide, three-month bus tour for the past three years running and says while he’s never thought of quitting, there have been days when it was all he could do to keep going.

“We had a heavy, heavy situation in Texas last year,” Magallenes said. He and a few other pro surfers were scheduled to visit a very sick young CF patient in the hospital. “Literally 40 seconds before we got to the door, he passed away,” Magallenes said. “The parents were outside grieving when we walked up. I told everybody ‘I’m done for the day, I can’t, that’s too much.’ I went back to the bus in shock. To put yourself in that family’s shoes at that time, I can’t even comprehend that. That laid on me for a couple months. I had a hard time sleeping. ... It was gnarly.”

But as bad and low and unfair as those moments are, Magallenes says there’s no way any of the surfers involved would ever stop helping. In fact, Mauli Ola is usually only the start. All three – Garcia, Alexander and Magallenes – are involved in at least two other children’s charities. It comes from a belief that while surfing might help CF patients in the most direct of ways, surfing can help heal just about anyone, at least for a little while.

“The kids in the hospital?” Magallenes says. “We might not change their lives, but at least we put a smile on their face for a day. That’s something. And the kids we take surfing? I’d say we change their lives forever.” :: mauliola.org

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