Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Make It Matter: Sea Change

How one couple introduced kids to the beach--and a world
beyond the next city block.

Some of the kids have never felt sand between their toes, inspected a seashell, or excavated a moat around a sand castle. They've never sprinted headlong into a flock of seagulls to watch them flap and scatter. Some have never even seen waves. It's not that they live so far inland. They're from the Philadelphia area, only an hour's drive from the beach.

Yet their summers more likely involve city recreation centers, steamy blacktop, or a splash in a public pool or a fire hydrant turned fountain.

Vince and Jeanie Hubach always wanted to share the sandier side of life with others. The couple, who grew up in small towns outside Philly and spent their childhood summers on Jersey Shore beaches, founded and run a nonprofit called Angels on the Atlantic that makes it easy—and free—for local city kids to visit the beach.
Vince and Jeanie Hubach
Photographed By Metin Oner
Vince and Jeanie Hubach love sharing the shore with others.
The idea for the organization began to germinate 16 years ago. Vince, who buys and sells restaurant equipment, was setting up pizzerias and delis in poorer sections of cities like Camden, Philadelphia, and Trenton. "Kids would be hanging around while I was working," he recalls. "I'd say, 'Why don't you go to the beach?' They just looked at me like, 'The beach?' "

Vince shared those stories with Jeanie. "Without children of our own, we wanted to do something for these kids, but in our own way," Vince says. In 2004, they bought a two-acre beachfront property in Ocean City, New Jersey. It came with a restaurant, which they ran as a breakfast and lunch spot, putting profits toward getting their nonprofit on its feet. (It was their first attempt at running a restaurant, but a local magazine named it one of the best places for breakfast.) Within two years, they had generated enough cash and lined up enough volunteers to start inviting urban community organizations to bring kids to their swath of public beach for a day.

At first, the groups that Jeanie called were skeptical. Two strangers would provide beach tags, bathing suits and sunscreen, T-shirts and towels, shade tents, and all the hot dogs, hamburgers, and Popsicles the kids could consume? All they had to do was get there? Vince recalls that first group of 40 kids: "They were running into the ocean, screaming and having the time of their lives. We knew at that moment that no matter what it took, we were going to build this thing." Over the years, the Hubachs have played host to over 4,800 kids, mostly 6- to 14-year-olds. This summer alone, they're expecting 5,000.

Vince, 41, lives at the shore from June to September to run the program full-time, and Jeanie, 43, joins him on weekends. During the week, she coordinates the group visits and works as a personal assistant to a business executive. Next on the agenda: raising money to build a 6,000-square-foot beachside pavilion to house the Angels program as well as allow physically challenged local residents easier access to the beach.

While some neighbors have had zoning and overcrowding concerns, community support, overall, has been tremendous. Brownie troops have run swimsuit drives, schools have collected loose change, and scientists from GlaxoSmithKline have developed Science by the Sea, a hands-on class involving sand, seashells, and microscopes.

Ultimately, the kids are happy tossing a ball, building sand castles—and letting their guard down. Vince recalls the day he overheard one boy say to another, "I don't think we're gonna hear any gunshots today."

Not surprisingly, the kids often tell the Hubachs that they've had the best day of their lives. That's the thing, says Jeanie: "This program helps them see that there's a whole big world out there to explore and that they're welcome in it.

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