Princess Keleanohoana‘api‘api, or Kelea, was a graceful and daring princess of Maui. She loved to surf and was told by the gods that she would find the love of her life only in the ocean. This wayward surfer is the inspiration for The Kelea Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making water sports accessible to all girls and women. This fall, the foundation is putting on a school-year-long program called Girls in the Lineup to empower junior and high school-aged girls through ocean and life skills.
Jennifer Gladwin, the director of the Kelea Foundation, first had the idea for Girls in the Lineup when attending the annual Menehune Surf Bash at Ho‘okipa. Though the grom divisions had an even gender split, Gladwell noticed that girls were underrepresented in the upper age divisions, with far more boys competing.
“What about the 12- and 13-year-old divisions?” she said. “They start to drop out.”
Gladwin also noticed bikini-clad teen girls standing awkwardly in the crowd, watching the action. “The requirement of being cute in a bikini becomes too much,” she said. “Many of the ones who stay are the ones who have brothers and dads supporting them.” Girls without this type of support or encouragement often move from the lineup to the beach.
Gladwin, along with her coaches Florabeth Coble and Sarah Hauser, wants to help change that through her after-school sports-based program. All girls who identify as female are welcome, from any school or background, and girls do not need to know how to swim or paddle to participate. The program will span over the course of this school year and happen at the indoor office space on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and at the beach on Sunday mornings.
I met Gladwin at Kahului Harbor on a recent weekend morning, where most of the Sunday ocean-based activities take place, to talk about the goals and purpose of the program. We sat at a picnic table and watched paddlers go in and out of the water, clad in leggings and sunscreen, dripping saltwater. People smiled and greeted us, and some friends of Gladwin’s stopped to talk.
Gladwin has a sports background and has long been a women’s advocate. She engages women from the community, including professional athletes and volunteer mentors, to help girls in the program learn ocean and leadership skills in a supported environment. These mentors work with girls at the beach and in the Foundation’s office.
The weekday after-school portion of the program happen indoors at “The Office,” next to Goodwill in Kahului, which advertises itself broadly as “a community wellness space.” Gladwin’s affectionate brown-and-white poi dog Huli is a constant in the welcoming, open space, which feels like a comfortably cluttered yoga studio. Colorful SUP boards, books, and mirrors decorate the space. When I dropped by, a teenaged summer program participant was busy cleaning the space. The Office is the home of the after-school part of the program, and also serves as a hosting spot for different programs for women in the community.
Girls in the Lineup participants will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays afterschool from 3:30-5:30pm in The Office. In a typical day there, girls talk story, have a snack and do core-stability and yoga routines. Then participants do social and emotional activities in a structured curriculum that lasts over the course of a nine-month period, ending in May 2018. Girls learn how their bodies work, engage in self-image activities, learn conflict resolution, talk about goal setting, and do meditation and mantras. Gladwin showed me calm-down jars the girls in the summer cohort made, with glitter that slowly settles down. “The girls were really engaged with it,” she said.
The last Sunday of each month, the program participants will meet at the beach, most often at Kahului Harbor. Beach days are dedicated to ocean safety skills, including understanding rip currents, weather, leadership in the water, and lifeguarding techniques. The goal is that by the end of the year, girls will be lifeguard certified and be eligible for county lifeguarding jobs. Girls also help to coordinate fun days at the beach.
“The girls work together to make fun things happen,” Gladwin said. Girls paddle canoe, stand-up paddle, and do beach workouts. Depending on conditions, some beach days are held at Makena or Launiupoko.
The beach and sports aspect of the program helps connect the girls to themselves and each other. “If you’re scared, or upset, sports will show everyone that,” Gladwin said. “It helps us be vulnerable, and when someone is vulnerable, we can accept someone for who they are.”
Girls will also learn the skills that will empower them to be more self-sufficient in doing sports, and by extension, in their lives. “How to carry a board in the wind, how to tie your board to your car–more women need to learn to do this,” Gladwin said.
Gladwin and I discussed issues in women’s watersports, like the “bikini paradigm,” an issue she’s also talked about with the girls in the program. On one hand, there’s the prototype of women professional surfer who looks like a model and wears makeup in the water, which supports a standard of expectation of what women in the water should look like. But women also have every right to wear and do what they want.
“How do we support each other but also keep each other accountable and checked in?” Gladwin said. “I don’t have all the answers,” but she added that it’s important to talk about it.
The debate, which is evolving, is taking place in a surf culture that’s still largely dominated by men. We have our local female surf heros, but women on Maui are nearly always outnumbered in any lineup, from Ho‘okipa to the Harbor. Of course, many men in our community are very supportive of women in ocean sports.
“Lots of women learn through fathers, brothers and boyfriends,” Gladwin said. “But what happens if that support goes away?”
A summer graduate, a King Kekaulike student, has been newly employed by Gladwin to clean the space. “That’s how you get your first jobs,” Gladwin said. “Through people you know.”
Part of the goal of Girls in the Lineup is to connect young girls with mentors in their community. I asked the graduate about her favorite part of the summer program.
“I liked the mantras,” she said. “They give you a different mindset, and it helps you think of a better way to talk to yourself. It makes you more positive.”
The program is currently looking for participants for this school year’s programs. Participants can be any female-identifying girl of high school or junior high age. Gladwin says they’re also looking for women in the community to be mentors.
“To me, there are two aspects to this: the girls that we mentor, but also women from the community to develop and connect alongside the girls,” she said. They look for a diversity of mentors with varied skillsets, and mentors do not need specific water sports experience. “How do we create a place that everyone can come and learn and grow?” Gladwin said. “I don’t have all the skills, but everyone has some skills they can contribute. We’re always open-ended and questioning.”
Gladwin is focused on the community and collaboration aspects of her program. The vision for the program is a collaborative effort born of a mentor’s night, when Gladwin asked community participants, “What do we collectively want to give girls in the community?” The answers inspired the vision: “To cultivate on authentic, diverse, self-determined sisterhood dedicated to community well-being, globally, locally, personally.”
And that’s the heart of the program. “[It’s] the realization that girls just need someone that likes them and tells them that they’re awesome,” Gladwin said. “The girls just need something real.”
Classes at The Office in Kahului happen on Mondays 3:30-5pm for junior high-aged girls and Wednesdays 3:30-5pm for high school-aged girls. Cost is $5 per class. Beach days are currently the last Sunday of the month until the program reaches full enrollment. For more information and to sign up, visit Keleafoundation.org/girlsinthelineup or contact TheKeleaFoundation@gmail.com.
Cover photo of Florabeth Coble (left) and Jennifer Gladwin (right): Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst