To say the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project had unlikely beginnings is an understatement. The guerilla-like installation of the Surfing Madonna mosaic piece under the train bridge at Encinitas Boulevard and Highway 101 made waves locally and internationally back in 2011. The artist Mark Patterson and his accomplice Bob Nichols, dressed as construction workers, aimed to spread a message of “Save Our Oceans” and give a gift of art to the community.
The City Council didn’t quite see it that way. The piece was deemed “graffiti” and Patterson was threatened with prosecution. But the community rallied behind him and his mosaic, with letters of support and donations. The Surfing Madonna was moved and now has a permanent home on the north wall of Leucadia Pizzeria. And over the last five years, what started as a gift has continued to give beyond their wildest dreams.
“Based on all the support we received, we realized we could do something with it,” Nichols said. “We realized we could raise money and awareness for ocean, beach and park-related projects.” And the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, which Nichols is the president of, was born. The idea behind it is that the ocean is for everyone, the the project aims to not only keep our ocean clean and safe, but also to make sure anyone who wants to can experience it.
“We try to find ocean-related projects that people really want,” Nichols said. “We assess what the community wants and needs, and that’s where we put our money.” Since December 2013, Surfing Madonna Oceans Project has donated $213,000 to the community through programs such as surf camps for special needs children, beach cleanups, marine mammal rescue, and providing floating beach wheelchairs for disabled adults and veterans and more.
“We have purchased marine life safety equipment for local lifeguards, have performed close to 200 seal and sea lion rescues, and helped hundreds of children and adults experience the ocean in a way they never thought possible,” Nichols said.
One program that is particularly close to Nichols’ heart provides floating beach wheelchairs to injured veterans, people with traumatic brain injuries, the elderly and disabled residents. “We wanted people to be able to actually get in the water and float,” he said. “Everyone should be able to experience the healing effects of the ocean. We had a mobility mat built that runs 150 feet from the hardscape all the way to the water’s edge at Moonlight Beach. And the support and letters we’ve received have been overwhelming.”
The free surf school for special needs children is another popular Surfing Madonna Oceans Project program. “Over the last three years we have touched about 500 families,” Nichols said. Groups of 20 to 25 children get one-on-one instruction for two hours in the surf. “We have seen a tremendous impact with these kids,” Nichols said. “We get them in the water, and they don’t want to leave. We often hear them say it is the best day of their life.”
Scholarships, recycling projects, school field trips and a Seaside Steward program are other ways the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project gives back. “We want to create ocean stewards,” Nichols said. “We teach people to love the ocean, respect the ocean, and then thereby they will want to protect and take care for the ocean.”
Currently the project is working with the city on a plan to install signage on all 40 square miles of trails in Encinitas, that will educate people about the habitat. “The hope is that it will teach people to have more respect for our trails, and to make it fun,” Nichols said.
The city also recently approved an 8-by-15-foot mosaic that will be installed at the new Marine Life Safety Center. “It’s a huge project and could really put Encinitas on the map, and increase tourism and help our local businesses,” Nichols said. “It will be visible above and below the water and feature all the local marine life you would see if you were snorkeling here. We need more art that depicts our coastline.”
The bulk of the project’s funds are raised through the Surfing Madonna Beach Run and Encinitas Half Marathon. This year’s beach run is set to be the biggest and best yet. “It’s the largest beach run in the country,” Nichols said of the Oct. 15 event. “We have people from 38 states and four countries competing. We also have a group of more than 30 U.S. soldiers in Kuwait called the Red Tails who will be competing virtually.”
The race features a 5K, 10K and 15K courses along the local coastline, and was voted one of the top five best events in its category by Competitor Magazine last year. “We have huge sponsors providing swag,” Nichols said. “Registration includes a huge medal, a beautiful shirt and bib number with a timing chip. Dr. Bronners will provide soap and lotion. Clif Bar will be handing out Clif Nut Butter Energy Bars and Clif Shot Energy Gels. Ocean Spray will be giving out Ocean Spray PACT at the finish line and eco-friendly boxed water. This is just to name a few.” Another highlight of this year’s event is Jack Tempchin — singer and songwriter for the Eagles — who will be performing a song or two before the race is set to begin at 2 p.m.
For more information about the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project and ways that you can help, visit surfingmadonna.org. For more information and to register for the Surfing Madonna Beach Run, visit surfingmadonnaRUN.org.
This article is sponsored content.