NYPD helicopters whir, circling above the undulating waters of The Rockaways as Coast Guard boats scurry back and forth. All the beachgoers look up, most knowing what this means-they are looking for bodies or what the locals call “floaters”. 75 percent of the time, they are the bodies of black teenagers. The drownings occur before or after lifeguards are on duty. Not cooling off in the summer heat is simply not an option for some, yet mother nature does not discriminate, so this heartbreaking scene plays out every summer. When Lou Harris moved to Rockaway Beach in 2006, he was haunted by this pattern of drownings in the Rockaways.
“Yo, black people don’t surf, that’s a white sport”. For years, this notion was coming from black kids that saw him with his surfboard. His thought: it’s a sport just like any other sport. It’s all about the opportunity that we’re given, and he realized the opportunities he was afforded growing up in Long Island were bountiful. He knew that he had to give back. He knew that he had to pay it forward. He knew that he had to give these kids the opportunities he was given.
In the summer of 2014, Marcell Dockery of Brooklyn lit a mattress on fire in the projects of Coney Island, killing one responding officer and critically injuring the other. When questioned by police about why he did it, Marcell said he was bored. This haunted Lou for over a year during which he read about Tony Corley’s Black Surfing Association founded in Central California in 1975.
In 2015, his “aha” moment came. Lou had enough fuel to start forcing change. With Tony Corley’s blessing, he founded the East Coast Chapter of the Black Surfing Association in 2016. Lou offers free surf and skateboard lessons alongside cooking workshops at local restaurants for all children who show up. The only requirement is showing up, but showing up may even be hard for some. Transportation issues, fear, and anxiety about trying something new are a few obstacles that get in the way for these children. This is where Vans enters the story. Vans took notice of Lou’s great work in The Rockaways and regularly donates 20-30 pairs of sneakers a month to his organization. If the kids show up and participate, they get a free pair of Vans. What an incredible partnership!
The serendipitous part of this story is that Lou is uniting kids of all races and backgrounds on the beach, on the boards, and in the kitchen.
This is the story of my friend Lou Harris and Vans joining together to turn the tides. This is the story of one man and one corporation joining hands to change, unify, and pay it forward. I pray for more humans like Lou connecting with companies like Vans creating synergies like The Black Surfing Association. Lou has been written up in countless publications as well as being featured on NBC’s Positively Black. You can also follow him on Instagram @black_surfing_rockaway to keep up with his infectious positivity and changemaking! Three of my kids had the opportunity to surf with Lou and spend time with the BSA regulars last summer and we hope to return in 2020!
“Never Give Up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” ~Harriet Beecher Stowe