By Fred Swegles

You might be surprised to learn that some of the most ocean-conscious children in California live in a town that doesn’t have a beach.

Most of them are residents of San Juan Capistrano, four to five miles upstream from where San Juan Creek meets the sea at Doheny State Beach.

These kids are all about the ocean, members of an eco-themed youth organization known as Great Opportunities.

Since 2002, the nonprofit has taught some 3,000 low-income, at-risk kids to swim and to discover an ocean that is so close to their community. Free activities include the swim classes, summer camps, field trips to seven area beaches and a bicycle ownership and maintenance program.

The bicycle and beach awareness programs promote pedal power as a way to make beaches accessible to the kids, with OCTA buses as another handy option.

Every September, on California Coastal Cleanup Day, kids from Great Opportunities will do their part for the ocean by performing cleanups of San Juan Creek. Then in the spring, to celebrate Earth Day, the kids perform cleanups in their own backyard.

This spring’s event, on April 27, will be in Capistrano Villas, a high-density, low-income community where Great Opportunities is based.

“We tell them that the ocean begins at your backdoor,” said Eric Groos, a former San Clemente lifeguard who co-founded Great Opportunities with his brother, David, also a former lifeguard.

We asked the Groos brothers about their mission:

How does cleanup of a usually dry creek, inland, help the ocean?

We teach that it’s all connected. All trash in the outdoors moves to the ocean. We focus on the five zones: 1) your front door, 2) gutters and drains, 3) creek and watershed, 4) the beach, tide pools and river mouth, and 5) the ocean is where we fish for food.

Photo: Courtesy of Great Opportunities
Photo: Courtesy of Great Opportunities

How does a cleanup in Capistrano Villas help the ocean?

It’s more than a just a cleanup. It’s a lifestyle. We build community pride, have them take ownership of their environment, be proud where we live, all in a positive way. Great Opportunities uses the aquatic world as a tool to build the youths’ confidence.

What activities do you offer the kids to balance environmental stewardship with fun?

To keep costs down, we reuse, rebuild and recycle items. We build SUPs and canoes out of one-gallon water bottles. We kayak and SUP in Dana Point Harbor, picking up floating plastic. Kids make bracelets out of used bike chains and trade them for a donation. We police the areas we travel to and explore. We believe that every day is Earth Day.

What role does your bicycle program play?

GO2 is our bike program. We give out hundreds of used bikes to assist in the offset of travel costs for the kid. Plus, it’s great exercise. These used bikes need maintenance, so the GO2 Program offers a do-it-yourself bike clinic. This helps build pride of ownership.

How did two ocean lifeguards from San Clemente come to start a program like this in San Juan?

We learned about the “stoke” early on in our lives, with a long history in the ocean. We were blessed as youths to grow up in San Clemente. We wanted to share that moment in our lives.

How can more kids (as well as sponsors and adult supporters) become involved, share the vibe?

The most important thing, to be successful, is show up. Passion and grace are an awesome tool to share with a kid, and it is fantastic to give it away. We offer a wide variety of activities throughout the year. Contact us at info@greatopps.org to see how you can plug in.

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