SAN JUAN DEL SUR—Nicaraguan sex trafficking victims will get a chance to ride a new wave of empowerment this year for the second annual Camp Bella surf camp, a five-day retreat offered by CHICABRAVA, an all-women’s surf camp in San Juan del Sur.
The country’s first rehabilitation program to combine surfing and fun started last year, when six rescued trafficking victims ages 14-16 went to the beaches of San Juan del Sur to learn how to ride the waves, relax, and play.
The retreat, called “Camp Bella,” amped the girls’ confidence and warmed the hearts of the staff so much that the organizers decided to do it again this year.
“It was such a beautiful thing and made such a difference in the girls and in all of us. It was just so fulfilling for everyone involved. It was the highlight of our year and we can’t wait to do it again,” says CHICABRAVA founder Ashley Blaylock.
Blaylock says fundraising will start next week for the program to host the girls, who are chosen from the House of Hope, Nicaragua’s largest shelter for sex trafficking victims.
“Their stories broke our hearts. We were all in tears. One of the girls was rescued from a brothel when she was 10 years old,” Blaylock says. “It makes you think about what these girls have been through and question how people can let this happen.”
Despite the girls’ past suffering, at the Camp Bella surf retreat the girls are treated like powerful young women, not victims.
“We didn’t want them to feel like charity cases, but like normal people. The whole idea was to get them out of that label mentality,” Blaylock says.
The girls do not sit around talking about their past, rather focus on enjoying the present moment by learning how to surf, practice yoga, ride a catamaran, cook, meditate, journal and receive pedicures. The retreat is made possible by donations from CHICABRAVA and the San Juan del Sur community.
“In these moments, these ladies were not girls born to prostitutes or victims who have been sexually exploited; they were innocent young females, with a free future. They were not told that they would amount to nothing, but were fully accepted and encouraged to dream,” Blaylock said.
An important part of the program is having the girls volunteer themselves. The young participants last November spent one day reading and playing with other kids at the nearby primary school Biblioteca Móvil.
“The best way to help someone is to have them help someone else and feel good giving back and recognizing that we are all together and all need help on some level,” Blaylock said.
Most of the girls at the first surf camp did not know how to swim; most had never even traveled outside Managua, Blaylock said. It makes the surf camp all that more adventurous, exciting and empowering for the young participants, she says.
Elsi Marin, 26, Nicaragua’s first female surfer, says it was touching to work with other Nicaraguan girls who had been through so much trauma at such a young age.
“This was so different from the normal camps we do. The girls were so sensitive and appreciated everything so much more. It really made me feel like I wanted to help,” said Marin, a San Juan del Sur native.
Because of the immensely powerful results, CHICABRAVA is considering making Camp Bella a nonprofit project as part of its business model. The women’s surf camp is also considering expanding its retreat program to include other groups, such as impoverished youths or victims of domestic violence, Blaylock says.
“We see the difference the program makes in building confidence and empowering regular groups. If we can do this for them, what can we do for the people who really need this help?” she said. “It’s truly beautiful. It really works.”
For more information, email Blaylock at firstname.lastname@example.org.