Barron helps kids with Cystic Fibrosis Climb the “Poor Man’s” Everest

Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel (online)

To attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain in one of its remotest locations — the Himalayas — certain things are required.

You need a bank roll of money, special government permits and a strong belief in your courage, inner strength and desire to push yourself.

Considerably less is needed to conquer the “poor man’s Everest,” as professional surfing legend and accomplished artist Shawn “Barney” Barron calls the sport of surfing. With just a simple surfboard, anyone on any given day can explore the peaks of the ocean.

From the day his neighbor George Harper first pushed him into a wave at Cowell Beach at the tender age of 5, Barron has climbed to the pinnacle of his sport. Perhaps more impressive, the man behind the “air show” concept has safely descended to solid ground.

Now Barron is on a mission to help others for whom the simple act of surfing may feel like summiting Mount Everest. Using his art and his position as a surf rep for Volcom, he is helping introduce the ocean and its waves to children who suffer from cystic fibrosis.

Barron works within the 5-year-old Mauli Ola Foundation, which has also enlisted the help of Kelly Slater, Gavin Beschen, Kalani Robb and Sunny Garcia, among others.

“Barney is selfless and an amazing talent, with a huge heart as well. He has never asked for anything,” said James Dunlop, the executive director of the Mauli Ola Foundation. “Upon our visits to Stanford Hospital, UCSF Medical


Center and the Bay Children’s Hospital, art has been a part of our program, in large part due to Barney’s talents. …
“He is amazing with the children, who just gather around him while he paints for them in the hospital ward. We are blessed to have this man in their midst.”

Translated from the Hawaiian language, Mauli Ola means “Breath of Life.” It was founded in 2007 by Dunlop, a surfer, and his brother Charles. Together they have led the fight to map the gene mutations responsible for cystic fibrosis at their testing lab, Ambry Genetics, which they started in 1999. Along with searching for a cure, the brothers wanted to help their patients to live their lives to the fullest — now.

In 2007, they read an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said cystic fibrosis patients in Australia who lived along the country’s coastline lived longer than their inland counterparts. In a high saline environment, the salt gets into the air passages and lungs and helps break down the mucus, making it easier for cystic fibrosis patients to breathe. In fact, in hospitals, patients are given hypersonic saline treatments, where they breathe in warm salt air and discharge the loosening mucus into a special vest that hangs on their back.

For the Dunlop brothers, the decision was easy. They had to get the kids surfing and let the ocean provide a natural equivalent of that hospital treatment.

The word got out to hospitals across the country, and later that year the Dunlops set up a nationwide bus tour with the intent of teaching surfing to sufferers of the genetic disorder from California to Texas and Florida, with stops along the Eastern Seaboard all the way up to New Hampshire.

Since the bus filled with professional surfers first got rolling, it has made 50 stops and taken more than 800 children into the ocean for some relief from their disease and some fun riding waves with the legends of the sport.

On May 7, the Mauli Ola Foundation stopped on the Westside for its Santa Cruz Surf Experience Day at Cowell Beach, where Barron learned to surf. There, Barron and his good friend Richard Schmidt took 33 cystic fibrosis patients from Northern California hospitals into the Monterey Bay.

“That day gave me the best feeling that I have ever felt on the ocean at any time of my life,” Barron said. “The Stenzel twins that have both endured lung transplants literally brought tears to my eyes when I saw them up and riding waves together. It was truly a magical day in my life.”

Barron said that day gave him more satisfaction that most, which is something coming from a surfer and artist who has experienced plenty of magical days, and climbed many personal mountains.

From the storied aggressive days with Vince Collier at Steamer Lane, to the shores of Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa, the colorful and majestic surfing career of Barron has led him to tear up the world’s finest and tallest surf breaks, all while becoming a truly unique pioneer of his sport.

Sponsors came knocking at his door soon after the 17-year-old Barron was featured in a Sunny Miller photo on the cover of Surfer Magazine. In the shot, Barron displayed his original and unique repertoire of surfing maneuvers on a heavy Puerto Escondido wave. Afterward, his climb up his own personal Mount Everest was under way.

Barron loves the sport of surfing for its free-flowing art form. As an artist, he’s an admirer of an athlete’s individual style, power and grace, displayed differently from one surfer to the next. In particular, Barron reveres 11-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion Kelly Slater. Barron calls Slater “the single greatest athlete of our time” for how he has adapted to changes in the sport — similar to the quickly changing weather that surrounds most of the planet’s highest peaks — during his reign.

“No main stream sport — not football or baseball or golf, for that matter — has endured the changes that surfing has,” Barron said. “What Slater is done is the mark of a true champion.”

Barron is hardly a fan of the traditional surf contests, though. He considers them unfair due to what he calls an “unlevel playing field” of competitors vying for whatever waves Mother Nature may happen to dish out during the allotted time of a surf heat.

That doesn’t mean Barron hasn’t left an indelible mark on them.

As the story goes, in the winter of 1995, the always innovative Barron — during a conversation with then Surfing Magazine editor Skip Snead and local big wave surfer Peter Mel — spoke of his idea to introduce skateboarding maneuvers to surfing. Barron brought up the idea knowing full well that it would upset the old-school organizers of the ASP tour.

“That’s is a brilliant idea!” said Mel, who then suggested, “We can call it the Air Show.”

The rest is history. Just watch any level of competition today, and you cannot help but notice every surfer from Slater to young groms flying across the face of the waves as part of what started as Barron’s idea.

“Barney has influenced the surfing world in a huge way. He is unquestionably a pioneer of his craft, and he, with his friends [Jason] Ratboy’ [Collins], [Darryl] Flea’ [Virostko] and [Matt] Rocky’ Rockhold, pushed all of us who surfed to a whole new level,” surf photographer Dave “Nelly” Nelson said. “Barney, is just one of those people who makes you feel good. He has a special quality about him that very few people have, that makes everyone feel that they are one of his best friends. He is a class act.”

While his neighbor taught him surfing, his neighbor’s wife, Katie Harper, influenced the young Barron’s life by introducing him to the creative arts. Today, they are as much of a part of his life as his surfing.

Recognizing that he is in the twilight of his surfing career, Barron finds himself more often than not reaching for his brushes and water color. He transfers to the canvas his abstract thoughts and memories collected either while waiting for sets or being held under water by giant waves, or, less grueling, watching the smooth rhythm of the floating kelp and the sea life around him.

“Everyone is an artist deep down, regardless if you can draw something better than someone else,” Barron said. “In school, we were taught to draw in between the lines. However, I was taught to always go as far as my eyes and mind could see, and I feel my paintings show a limitless depth to their meaning.”

One of his best friends, Virostko said Barron’s involvement in the Mauli Ola Foundation doesn’t surprise him.

“He has a certain calm that people just like to be around, though he can get pretty heavy at times, but that is just Barney,” Virostko said. “I am just beginning to figure out the man’s quirks after 30 years of friendship.”

What is the next mountain for Barron to climb? According to this surfing pioneer, he would like to buy a horse, live off the grid, and grow and tend to a garden, and with his easel, canvas and brush, and continue to abstractly paint his experiences of the mountains he has climbed.

Neil Pearlberg’s Perfect Rite appears biweekly in the Sentinel. Contact him at

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