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SoCal lifeguards paddle through Malibu to raise funds

Kyle Heinrich smiles on his board during the Malibu leg of the SoCal PaddleDown. Photo submitted
Alex Vejar, Staff Writer
2:30 pm PDT August 4, 2014

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, a new fundraising endeavor hopes to blow skin cancer out of the water.

Several agencies from the California Surf Lifesaving Association started the The SoCal PaddleDown Lifeguard for Cancer Relay last summer to raise awareness for skin cancer.

“We started in an effort to basically create an event in which we could include all the lifeguards throughout Southern California, an event that would fuel to fundraise for whatever charitable cause that we all felt passionate about while also kind of being able to unite us in some sort of uniting event,” said Jorge Sifontes, a Point Mugu lifeguard who created the fundraiser.

Malibu lifeguards from the city’s agencies recently paddled their way through Point Mugu, Zuma Beach, Sycamore Cove and the Malibu Pier — a total of 22.5 miles, according to Google maps.

Last year, the relay ended at the pier. But with a month left to go in the event, Sifontes is confident the San Diego goal will be reached.

However, Sifontes won’t be discouraged if the goal falls a bit short.

“Whether we make it San Diego or not, we’re always trying to push the envelope for what’s possible with this event,” said Sifontes, who paddled his way from Point Mugu to Sycamore Cove, a distance of almost two miles.

The event began on June 23 in Santa Barbara. Lifeguards from the agency at Gaviota beach paddled along their districts’ water, handed over a buoy to their neighboring agency’s lifeguards, who then paddled to the next agency, and so on. The PaddleDown hopes to reach Imperial Beach in San Diego around Labor Day.

The goal of the 250-mile stretch is to raise $25,000 for the John Wayne Cancer Foundation’s Block the Blaze Skin Cancer Education Program.

Damian Minicucci, a friend of Sifontes who helped get the fundraiser started, said sun exposure is something that affects not only a great number of people, but also all lifeguards, making the skin cancer cause that much more meaningful.

“I felt with something that’s so closely related to our field of work, it was the best thing to raise awareness for and fundraise for,” Minicucci said.

Currently, the initiative has raised only $485, according to the event’s stayclassy.org fundraising webpage. Sifontes said raising money has been a challenge.

“We’re doing a great job with the paddling, but raising money is a little bit harder,” Sifontes said.

Last year, the fundraiser collected less than $1,000 of their $5,000 goal, Sifontes said. The money was donated to City of Hope, a research and treatment center for diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Money can be donated to the cause via the PaddleDown’s stayclassy.org webpage.

The lifeguards move the relay along when they can, but don’t paddle at night for safety reasons. Other precautions they take are paddling in groups whenever possible and constantly communicating with one another, Sifontes said.

Sifontes said he personally knows other lifeguards who have been affected by melanoma, and others who have died from skin cancer. He believes in the cause the relay represents.

“I feel that this is the event that we should be doing, I feel this is the cause that we should be paddling for,” Sifontes said. “I’m just very proud that the other agencies and my own take up this cause and just do what we do best, which is be excellent watermen and waterwomen for this cause.”

Minicucci, who has paddled both the Point Mugu and Zuma Beach legs of the relay, said he is thrilled to be a part of the cause.

“Truly, it’s a great experience,” Minicucci said. “It was something that I got really excited about because not only is it a fun event [and] a good time for all of us, it’s an event that literally will bring every lifeguard agency and lifeguard in southern California together.”

Bryce Henderson, a lifeguard friend of Sifontes and Minicucci, feels it is important that people are more aware and educated about skin cancer. 

“It’s one of the forms of cancer that I think kind of gets blown off to the side because people don’t expect to ever have to deal with it,” Henderson said. 

Henderson, who lost his mentor due to complications arising from skin cancer, said being involved in the cause was rewarding for him. 

“It’s a cause that really hits home for just about everyone,” Henderson said. “It’s a cause I feel that can make a little bit of a difference of helping people to think twice before going out in the sun, just lifestyle choices that can help you extend a happy life.”