ENCINITAS — Attila Tota stood in front of a group of 30 members of the Swami’s Surfing Association, clad in a aloha button down shirt, his left arm at his side, but there is something noticeably missing from his right side.
“I’m the one-armed bandit,” he says to the group of casually dressed surfers, which draws laughs. “But seriously, I am here to talk about Boys To Men.”
With that, Tota’s wife of 13 years, Lisa Kalison-Tota, starts a PowerPoint presentation, and Tota tells the group about the organization’s upcoming signature fundraiser, the 100 Wave Challenge, and challenges the group of accomplished surfers to get involved with the event.
Tota, 60, is the lead mentor for the Encinitas chapter of Boys To Men, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides adult male mentors for at risk teenage boys. The program services some 600 boys countywide on a weekly basis — many of the boys come from single-parent households with no stable male role models.
The soft-spoken man who espouses the importance for young boys to have “healthy” male role models lost his arm last year as part of a years-long battle with an aggressive form of skin cancer.
But despite his battle, Tota has continued to be a mentor of dozens of boys in North County and the face of the group’s fundraising efforts, inspiring both boys and men alike with his battle.
“Attila is very inspirational,” said Joe Sigurdson, a co-founder of Boys To Men. “In spite of his health issue he continues to run our Encinitas group…This is so brief and does not begin to touch the magnitude of Attila’s impact, the love and respect we all have for him.”
Tota said that his battle with cancer has only heightened his love for the program.
“I have never met another group of men more caring and more compassionate with huge hearts,” Tota said of his extended Boys To Men family. “It is kind of rare for a lot of men to have the experience of connecting with genuine, sincere and compassionate men, healthy men who enjoy being available, being of service and being of help.
“They have helped me morally and made my journey a whole heck of a lot easier, which has allowed me to continue my journey,” Tota said.
Tota got involved with Boys To Men seven years ago when he was involved with a similar organization, the ManKind Project. He was drawn to it by the message of providing young boys with guidance and the 100 Wave Challenge, which was in its inaugural year.
In the fundraiser, which Sigurson likens to “Relay for Life, with waves,” surfers pledge to ride 100 waves in a day, and solicit sponsorship money for each wave they finish. Each surfer looks to raise $1,000.
Tota was in.
“I went to an event of theirs, listened to what they were talking about, and I kind of got hooked,” he said. “I started to see what type of impact they were having on these young teens lives, and the turnaround these boys were making.
“I started looking at it closer and did the 100 Wave Challenge, and from that point, from watching the boys and their lives improve, I said I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” Tota said.
Once a week, the “men” host after school sessions with the “boys,” many who are on the path of delinquency, or worse.
“These are kids who are headed toward gangs, dropping out of school, and potentially towards prison,” Sigurson said. “We sit in a circle with the boys. The men introduce topics, like divorce, drugs, alcohol, girls, peer pressure, domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse, and we talk about the stuff that teachers and counselors aren’t at liberty to discuss.
“The men share the truth about what happened to them around that topic, including the consequences,” Sigurson said.
Many of the men serving as mentors, including Sigurson, have demons of their own in their past that they have overcome, so they are in a unique position to guide the boys away from similar mistakes, Sigurson said.
“When boys hear the men being vulnerable, open and honest, they feel safe and they want to tell us their stories,” Sigurson said. “We ask them what it is they want, and we help them identify what they really want. We challenge them to make one choice toward becoming the men they want to be and the life they want to have, and the mentors will offer their support to that young man for the week.”
The following week, Sigurson said, the mentors return and check in with the boys to see if they followed through on their pledge, and will continue to support them along their journey.
Boys To Men also hosts weekend retreats called “adventure weekends,” where the mentoring is taken on the road to a campsite.
“We are there to be a sounding board for their lives, and soon they are charting their own paths toward becoming the men they want to be,” Sigurson said.
Tota, who said his father, a former Eastern European freedom fighter, was abusive, explained that the message and the works resonated with him.
“I wish all boys had healthy role models. I wish I did,” Tota said.
Tota hit the ground running with Boys To Men, mentoring boys in Encinitas, becoming a regular at the 100 Wave Challenge and working to spread the group’s mission across North County.
But four years ago, he started to feel pain in his arm. For two years, doctors had no answer for the cause of the pain, but in 2014, doctors diagnosed Tota with squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.
He underwent chemotherapy and various treatments, and although some worked for a brief period of time, the cancer would return with a vengeance.
By 2015, Tota’s arm had withered to the point where doctors were forced to amputate it just below his right shoulder. The surgery took place on the eve of Thanksgiving, which Tota said was a blessing.
“I was thankful to have went into surgery then,” Tota said. “The doctors wanted to put it off for a few weeks, but I felt I had to do it now.”
Tota’s life has been a series of adjustments since the surgery. Right handed, Tota had to learn everything again as a southpaw.
The most difficult thing for him, Tota said, is not being able to participate in the 100 Wave Challenge, which he hasn’t the past two years as a result of the cancer.
But it hasn’t stopped him from championing the organization he has come to love. And the organization has responded by coming to the aid of Tota and his wife.
They have hosted a series of fundraisers, some still ongoing, to help defray Tota’s rising medical costs. And, most importantly Tota said, the men in the organization have rallied to he and his wife’s side, providing words of encouragements, text messages and other forms of support.
Kalison-Tota on Tuesday said that the organization’s impact on their lives has been invaluable.
“They have been awesome, they are all about service and they have stepped up to take care of one of their own,” Kalison-Tota said. “He (Tota) has such a passion for the program, he practically lives for it, it is his life’s passion and his life’s inspiration, and they in turn have just been amazingly supportive of him, and their support is still ongoing.”
Through all of the treatment and ongoing bouts with the illness, Tota said he has been able to hone in on the goal of continuing to spread the word about Boys To Men. There are 20 charters schools in the North County looking to host the program, and he said a successful upcoming 100 Wave Challenge — slated for Sept. 17 at Mission Beach — could enable the group to do so.
He won’t be able to surf the waves, but he will find a surfing proxy in his place, and stomps across North County looking to find believers in the program.
“I can’t do a lot of things that I used to, but my voice is fine,” Tota said. “And I will continue to tell people about this amazing program if they will listen. Its message is too important.”
To find out more about Boys To Men and the 100 Wave Challenge, visit boystomen.org.