Phil Jackson is a big believer that a little salt in the air and sand in the hair can do a body good.
That’s why in 2014, the 38-year-old from Garden City, South Carolina founded the Surf Dreams Foundation, an organization that “provides children with the proper knowledge, lessons, equipment and ocean safety to enjoy surfing.”
Surf Dreams goes beyond that, too. The group takes children on surf trips, mostly up and down the east coast, and supports its competitive surfers by assisting with contest entry fees when they can’t afford it.
Yes, long before Jackson was at the helm, he was a big-time surfer himself. But, he was diverted from the sport when a drug addiction took over his life. His mission now? To impact kids in the local surf community well before drugs have the chance to.
That’s why Jackson, a sales manager at a whole sale produce company, took home a Jefferson Award in June, which honors those whose public service goes above and beyond.
Riding the Waves of a Different World
Jackson started surfing at 7 years old.
“I took a liking to it instantly. I knew as soon as I put my hands on a surf board, that’s what I was going to do,” he said.
By the time he was 12, he began competing and quickly moved up the amateur ranks. By 17, he was one of the top 20 surfers on the east coast for his age.
“I loved it because it’s an individual sport, but it’s also a team sport because you have a lot of friends out doing the same thing as you, and cheering you on,” he said. “The beach is a great place to be, great place to grow up and it’s a healthy environment.”
Still, that didn’t provide enough of a buffer from outside influences. He became a team rider for Village Surf Shop and entered a world where the red carpet was rolled out for talented surfers.
“Then I started to take my own path, and and got into DJ’ing and partying more,” Jackson explained. “I was hanging out with non-surfers and kind of moved away from that team atmosphere and the original crowd I was hanging out with.”
As he was in the clubs more, he began using weed, cocaine and crystal meth. Not only was he using, but he saw dollar signs attached to his habit.
“I realized I could sell this stuff and pay for my habit, and make some money, too. I started transporting weed, psychedelic mushrooms and coke down the east coast, and making a pretty descent living by partying,” he said.
By the time he was 23, he had a successful DJ’ing career, rapping career and a profitable drug-dealing career. Surfing, even just for fun, was put on the backburner.
“I would go out in the water sometimes but it was nothing serious. I wasn’t good anymore,” he said.
He also burned many bridges in the surfing community and with loved ones. Rock bottom came when he was doing more using than selling and got to the point where he only had the clothes on his back. Without a car or a home, he went to his mother’s house out of desperation.
“She basically told me to beat it. I wasn’t welcome back in her house,” he recalled. “So, she turned me away at her front door until I decided to sober up.”
At the time, he was dating a woman named Ola, his now wife and mother to their four children.
“She was partying with me too but she was no where near the caliber of what I was doing,” he said. “She said, ‘you need to quit or I’m leaving.’ I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, so we ended up getting a hotel room for four or five days and I detoxed there.”
There was no rehab or relapse whatsoever. With a tenacious drive to stay clean and endless support from Ola and his mother, Jackson has been sober for 13 years now.
“I had it in my mind that I was going to prove to all these people in the surf community that I could come back from this,” he said. “So, I slowly started the rebuild process.”
A Wetsuit as a Catalyst
As you can imagine, sobriety wasn’t an easy road.
“I gained 100 pounds in six months after I quit doing drugs because I was tasting food again and I was eating a lot,” he said. “That was tough going from 180 my whole life to 280 in six months. And with the extra weight, it was tough teaching myself how to surf again.”
He did get back into competing a little bit, but his heart was more into helping contest organizers, Denny and Terry Green, during events. So, he volunteered his time to ensuring contests ran smoothly.
“They started letting me do little things on the beach. The next year, they gave me more responsibilities,” he said.
From there, a leader emerged and so did a foundation for Surf Dreams.
“During a contest, there was a girl who was riding without a wetsuit. It was later in the season, like early November, so it was cold and she was out there anyway,” he said. “I talked to her grandma, who was this girl’s guardian, and they were on a fixed income. I said ‘we can give her a wetsuit, no problem.’ I talked to a couple of people about sizes and by the end of the day, we had a wetsuit for her. That snowballed into people donating old wetsuits and surf boards, so I started collecting them and giving them out in the community.”
Shortly after that, Jackson organized a Christmas drive in which he took eight kids under his wing and gave them surf boards, wetsuits, book bags and clothes donated from the local surf shop.
“We decided to start a surf team, so we picked some kids in the community that needed help, and then we started paying entry fees and taking kids on surf trips,” he said.
With money raised through events like cook-offs and other fundraisers, they’ve taken children, between the ages of 7 and 16, to surf locations in Florida, California and even Puerto Rico.
“A lot of these kids would otherwise never leave the town that they’re in,” Jackson said.
In 2016, they were able to raise enough money for a 15-passenger van. Hyatt Buick/GMC, a local car dealership, split the cost with them, so they went from taking two or three kids on trips to now taking 12 to 13 kids.
Not only are these kids learning how to stand up on a board and navigate the ocean’s rhythms, but they’re learning life skills along the way.
“They’re learning how to order food for themselves on these trips, they’re learning how to organize their belongings, they’re learning how to manage their finances because they’re given spending money and they have to budget that for the week,” Jackson said. “We’ll also take them on non-surfing outings, like when we travel, we might go to the Kennedy Space Center or to Sea World. We require them to help navigate as we’re on the road.”
The benefits of the program even extend to their families.
“One family, we brought them back together. The parents were having trouble in their marriage,” Jackson explained. “One event, dad would be off to the side. One event, mom would come and dad wouldn’t come. One day, they were both there at the event and they saw their kid’s giant smile as he was coming out of the water, and the kid hugged both of them. The next thing you know, you’d see both parents standing there together at the same time. A year-and-a-half later, they had repaired their marriage and they were back together.”
So, as Surf Dreams continues to grow and influence youth on levels beyond the surfboard, a new “wave” of participates can’t wait to become a part of it.
And, Jackson and his small but mighty team are ready to turn saltwater dreams into a reality.