SM BEACH — While Southern California’s beaches offer seemingly easy access to the Pacific and ample days in the sun for boogie boarding, surfing and other water sports, the nearby offerings aren’t so easily available for some area kids.

But Santa Monica Police Officer Austin Brown, who works with the Police Activities League (PAL), has been helping bring the complete ocean experience and its many healthful benefits to more youth.

Brown has been working with a small group of at-risk youth between the ages of 10 and 14 in an eight-week class that helps get them better acquainted with the ocean. So on any given Thursday, you can find Brown and the PAL kids on the beaches of Santa Monica, Venice or Malibu, wherever the waves are good.

“A couple of the kids this year were really nervous going into the water on our first day,” said Brown, a 10-year resident of the area. “Of course, that’s why we’re having the course — to get them more comfortable with the ocean.”

Brown was influenced by the ocean early in life growing up in Santa Rosa where his father introduced him to the ocean and a variety of water sports, and now shares his appreciation of the ocean with the PAL kids.

The eight weeks are all prep time leading up to the selection of a recipient or recipients for the Hamilton Galleries/Rob LeMond Swim Scholarship, which has been awarded for the last five years. The scholarship allows children who would otherwise be unable to attend surf camp the opportunity to spend every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for two vigorous weeks in Malibu with Rob LeMond, a long-time ocean swimming and surf instructor.

“We have good kids in PAL,” said Brown, who himself has been surfing for the last five years. “We don’t allow gang affiliation, and we monitor and make sure they’re doing well in school. If they’re not doing well in school, they can’t participate in some of our programs.”

For the eight-week summer ocean program, Brown begins recruiting participants by asking who can swim and who is interested.

“From there, I see how comfortable they are in the water and if they can maintain their interest and, most importantly, show up every Thursday.

“The scholarships are valuable, so if they show they can commit to a Thursday surfing class, then they will qualify for the scholarship,” said the six-year SMPD veteran and former teacher.

The scholarship program was created by Santa Monica art gallery owner Leigh Hamilton. When her daughter was learning to swim, she realized that many children never get the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and benefits of the Pacific Ocean and believed that the experience was something that all children should be able to have, not just the privileged.

As a former Junior Olympic swimmer, Hamilton understood what a life-enhancing experience swimming and ocean sports can be.

“Ocean sports, and the joy that comes from them, are something you can do for the rest of your life,” she said.

Brown notes that, even with challenges in the economy, “Leigh consistently finds the time and resources to allow two of our kids, at least, to participate in a sport that, without her generosity, they would never have the opportunity to really learn how to do.”

“This program is really unique,” Brown added. “It’s incredible what it does for the kids’ confidence. They learn that they can succeed at new, and maybe intimidating, challenges.”

The program made quite an impact on one of the past participants. Jesus Torres, the first recipient of the Surf/Swim Scholarship, is now attending the University of California, Santa Cruz, and studying marine biology.

A benefit to raise funds for the program is being held this Saturday, July 9, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica. Tickets are $30, and children attend free. For more information, go to

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