Surf Stories: Giselle Carrillo, Founder of Courage Camps and El Barrio Athletic Club!

Today's Feature Friday Surf Story is a beautiful one. Meet Giselle Carillo (@gisellecc), the rad founder of of Courage Camps (@couragecamps) and El Barrio Athletic Club (@elbarrioathleticclub)! 



Giselle seeks to provide a safe space for kids to have more opportunities to learn how to surf and learn more about nutrition, health, and exercise, which are some of her passions. As an AAPI owned and run surf brand, we could totally relate to her story of wanting more accessibility to surf and spreading the word that brown girls surf too! Keep reading to learn more about her story!


First things first! Where are you from?


I was born and raised in East LA. 

My parents are immigrants from Mexico, my Papi ran through the desert and my Mami snuck in with her sister's visa.

I am the eldest of 3 daughters. 

Growing up - we always had a home, but sometimes things got tough. But as a kid - I would have never known it. It felt normal to go help my Dad at his mechanic shop after school. It felt normal that I only got 1 pair of shoes a year. It felt normal that my Dad always was late to get us our back-to-school supplies until he got the money. But then you grow up a bit, and you see what other kids around you have. Especially when I went away to college. This was the first time I was not surrounded by faces that all looked like mine. 


That is incredible and takes a lot of courage for someone to take that risk to move to another country like that. I have a similar backstory and started surfing pretty late. 

How/when did you start surfing?


I started surfing pretty late in life. 

25 years old, in the midst of my quarter life crisis.

Before surfing came into my life, I never even really went to the beach. 

You see, in LA - not all kids from every neighborhood make it to the beach. 

Growing up, I never learned to swim. The beach was far. And weekends were dedicated to working, always working. My Mom is deathly afraid of water. And she would say the ocean could betray you - so best just stay away. 

And so I did. For 25 years of my life. 

But I always noticed things related to the ocean, and especially surfing. 

A movie about surfing - I can’t even count the number of times I watched Blue Crush. 

A wetsuit hanging from someone’s dorm room.

A car with a surfboard rolling down the street.

But I always thought - “Wow, must be so cool to be a surfer. But, brown people don’t surf. So it’s not for me.” 


Between college and what I call my quarter life crisis, I got to experience the consequences of living a life you’re not happy with. The plan was that I would go to law school. But upon graduating from college, I realized I didn’t have the resources to pursue law school - and honestly, I didn’t feel inspired to argue with people the rest of my life. So instead, I signed up for Teach for America, and they “shipped” me off to Philadelphia. I had never even visited the East Coast, yet moved there with $200 and 2 suitcases. It was incredibly transformational for me - I thought I had grown up hard. But seeing what my students had to fight through each day just trying to get to school in South Philly made me see that the root issue goes deeper than our school system. I got the privilege of teaching history, government, literacy, and life to my kids (as I call them) in South Philadelphia and then came back home to teach in South Central LA. In the 5 years, I felt like I had not really made progress with them - my kids, their families, the community were not healthy. In fact, I wasn’t healthy- physically, emotionally and mentally.


So I left teaching at the end of my 5th year. With no plan, I had to tell my parents that I was going to start over again. I wasn’t even sure where to start. At the time, my sister and I were sharing a 1 bedroom apartment in Venice. I was making rent by working little jobs in the neighborhood. And one day, as we were doing nothing - the idea came up. “You want to learn to surf?” With the $100 I probably could not afford at the time, we booked our first surf lesson. And honestly, it was a total failure but a total joy at the same time. I didn’t catch a single wave that day. In fact, I didn’t catch a single wave for the first 6 months. But we dove in head first, we bought Wavestorms and wetsuits and went every morning to the Venice Breakwater at 6am. Had it not been for having my sister and learning together, I for sure would have given up. At least in all our moments of failure and disappointment, we still got to laugh (or cry) together and make some sweet memories. I learned to be a kid again, to just do something because it was fun in that moment - not because it was making me money, not because it was attached to a career goal, not because it made my parents happy. It is my personal belief that the ocean & surfing, especially later in life, helps dampen the childhood wounds and scars we all have. Some people allow themselves to notice those wounds and dig in there, and heal. Others don’t. But what I found in those wounds was courage, self-esteem, and strength I never knew I had. I was literally rewriting my family story. 


That rediscovery of my courage and strength helped me totally transform the rest of my life: I found a new career in health and nutrition, I started powerlifting, I took up boxing and now train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. 



How did you get into your current work with Courage Camps and El Barrio Athletic Club? 


I was lucky enough to start surfing as social media became what it is today. 

And connected with two other Latinas with family roots in East LA who had a common story to mine - being one of the first in their families or communities to surf. One day, I literally had a dream - where I saw a big room full of boxing gear, Jiu Jitsu gear, and surfboards with lots of kids and families coming to learn and experience these things that gave me so much courage and strength.


We decided we wanted to act upon this dream and fill that gap for our community by providing free surf lessons. We started with just a couple of friends, took pictures, shared them on social media with the hashtag #couragecamps. And more friends came to the next one, and more, until complete strangers started showing up saying - “We always wanted to learn to surf but I never knew anyone who could teach me” or “I tried it once, but I felt so alone out there. So I stopped.” In one of our last Courage Camps - a family with 3 little girls came. The little girls looked so much like young Giselle - their Mom said something so sweet, “I am just so happy that my daughters get to meet strong, brave brown women like you.” It felt like a full circle moment - closing the gaps I experienced as a young kid. And my hope is that my generation will be the last one that believes a little brown kid does not belong in the ocean.


And then, 2020 happened. We put our camps on pause. Because COVID has been incredibly devastating to our black and brown communities. I spent the first year of quarantine with my parents - my Dad kept working as a mechanic in East LA. And every other day, he would come home with new news of an entire family that was sick, a friend that had passed, and even his youngest sister who leaves behind a family. All the factors were there in my community: lack of health insurance, multiple families living in one space, rampant diabetes and obesity. In all of this loss, I have been very lucky in my immediate family - my parents are healthy and I got to buy a home. 


As soon as I started looking, I knew I wanted to make it a community space not only for Courage Camps but for what I believe is the next most critical need for community - health. And that is how I came up with El Barrio Athletic Club. When I think about “athletic clubs” - they are fancy, expensive facilities in the best neighborhoods money can buy. So I wanted to create the antithesis to that - my own version of an athletic club for my people in my garage. Starting a health journey can be so inaccessible in terms of cost, but also incredibly intimidating. There is so much knowledge that our communities just don’t have. I was in my late 20s when I finally learned what a macronutrient was. We grow up just eating what is cheap - 25 cent Cup O Noodles and McDonald’s 39 cent cheeseburgers. 8 years into my own physical transformation, I have acquired so much knowledge - I learned it by leaving my community. And now, I feel like it’s time to bring it back and teach it to my people. Not just physical health, but emotional and mental health as well.



What inspires you?


My forever inspiration will be my parents. Everything I have is because of the sacrifices they made. They did not get to live their life - they had to survive. And when I look back at my grandparents, my great grandparents, my ancestors - every single one of their sacrifices has positioned me to be where I am today. 


I am also inspired by the next generation of little black and brown boys and girls. As a teacher, I wish I could have done more. Because small experiences can be radical interrupters for a young mind - exposing them to a life changing path. I hope that one day, a young kid who comes to El Barrio Athletic Club will be exposed to his or her purpose earlier than I got the chance to be.


And finally, me. I inspire me. I remind myself that I am uniquely made. Only one of me has ever existed, and only one of me will ever exist. It feeds my curiosity - what was I put on this Earth to do? And each day, I do feel like I am getting close to that.



YES! Queen energy. Any fun surf or ocean related stories you want to share with our readers?: 


Gah! I can’t think of any at this moment. I am a pretty undramatic surfer. And I am most definitely not the best surfer. I have more of a “Tia (auntie)” vibe out in the water. My favorite place to surf is San Onofre. But I live for traveling to find my perfect wave - even though I know it does not exist. But the journey is so fun! I have traveled to Sayulita (in my home state of Nayarit, Mexico), Hawaii, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Morocco to surf. One day when I am old, I want to gather my grandkids and show them pictures of all these adventures I had. So that it inspires them to go far away all alone and come home to be surrounded by people who love them - and enjoy both sides of that human experience. 



What is the biggest lesson you've learned from surfing? 


The hardest day is the first day. After that, you just have to keep going. Because mastering anything is a lifelong practice. Each day gets you closer to your 10,000 hours. Surfing has taught me that, Jiu Jitsu most definitely has shown me that. And so many other journeys in my life..


Any advice/tips for young surfers or any advice/ life lessons for all of us? 


You are a real surfer even if (A) you don’t go everyday, (B) you only surf when it’s warm and tasty, (C) you only like small waves on your big & thick longboard. What it looks like for you doesn’t have to match what it looks like for other people. Do it, because it makes you happy - not because you are trying to fit anyone else’s definition or expectations of it.



Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your story, Giselle! You are doing amazing work and we cannot wait to see what else you do. (And catch some waves with you this summer!)