Fish out of water: The story of an undiscovered surfer

Darreyon Johnson, left, now 13 years old, and his younger brother Tevin, who is 12. After seeing the transformation of Darreyon, who was pegged as a troublemaker, when he surfed last year, writer Kasaan Steigen, committed herself to bring him back to the beach as much as she could, traveling between the Valley, South Central and Malibu. Photo by Kasaan Steigen

A one-day trip field trip to Malibu turned into a summer-long adventure and the chance of a lifetime for Darreyon Johnson, a 12-year-old from South Central who spent last summer surfing with the help of a volunteer mentor and Malibu’s West Coast Riders.

By Kasaan Steigen / Special to The Malibu Times


Getting to the Beach

It was supposed to be one day at the beach for 50 children from South Central. The nonprofit I worked for took the children on field trips every month to expose them to things outside of their everyday lives. Darreyon Johnson had joined the program late, and he was one of the kids who was always walking the thin line of getting kicked out of the program. I don’t think even he was expecting much out of one day at the beach.

The moment that changed my summer plans entirely was when Darreyon stood shivering beside me on the beach, chewing his towel, just staring at the water with a look of stunned disbelief, and saying over and over, “Did you see how far out I went? I didn’t know I could go out that far. I didn’t know I could go out that far!”

He wasn’t even talking to me, but to himself-stuck in delirious repetition.

Then he was running right back out into the water. He was amazing on the waves. All the children were having fun trying to surf, but Darreyon was up on his feet the first time out of the gate, riding in wave after wave like a natural. More than that, there was a distinctly new look on his face. A look that said he knew he was good at something. I knew in that moment, one way or another, I had to get him back to the beach.

Paying for surf camp in Malibu for the summer was beyond my means, so I enlisted the support of Brendon O’Neal, the camp leader. When he heard about what I wanted to do, he agreed to host two children at no charge for the whole summer. All I had to do was get them there.

Surfing days meant driving for six hours between my home in the Valley, the children’s homes in South Central and Malibu. But those hours spent talking with them were almost as fun as the surfing. You can learn a great deal from 12-year-olds. I thought I was going to teach Darreyon something, but he didn’t need any help from me. By the second week, sitting in the car on the way home and looking out at the Malibu coastline, he remarked simply, “If I lived here, my life would be totally different.”

It was just that obvious. We sat in silence and enjoyed the clean air for as long as we could.

I asked Darreyon in the car one morning why he often acted so badly. I told him that I was beginning to think it was all an act because the Darreyon I knew wasn’t really that bad at all. The most mischievous grin spread across his little face, and he just shrugged and rolled his eyes, “You gotta act crazy, Miss Kasaan, if you want the bad kids to leave you alone.”

It was so sad and frustrating to see that his suffering grades and corrupted behavior in school might just be the casualties of his instinct to survive-a product of fear. How could I tell him that this was wrong and show him that he was hurting himself in the long run when I couldn’t possibly see what he sees? Perhaps he knew more than I did about what would keep him safe and alive in that environment. Maybe all I could do was give him the chance to experience another environment-give him a chance to see what else he is capable of being, out of context.

Read Part III next week …

Darreyon attends West Coast Riders surf camp in Malibu, headed by Brendon O’Neal. Kasaan Steigen was formerly program coordinator for the Chaka Khan Foundation and is the creator of the American Exchange Program, which seeks to provide domestic exchange opportunities for at-risk youth. Inquiries about American Exchange can be sent to: Kasaan Steigen, P.O. Box 692026, Los Angeles, CA 90069, or email