Triumph through tragedy: Tushar Atre’s death spurred his friends to build a unique life opportunity for kids

A Drop In Coalition student soaking in the moment at Pleasure Point.
(Courtesy Drop In Coalition )

“Helping girls grow with the flow in science, technology, engineering, art and math, as well as surfing” is the Drop In Coalition’s mantra. It was developed in honor of the Pleasure Point entrepreneur who bonded with and inspired his group of like-minded friends in the water and out. It also is geared toward rectifying one of Atre’s most troublesome questions when he began surfing: Where are the people who look like me?

Even though she lives roughly a mile from the ocean in Live Oak, and she’s played along the waters of Pleasure Point much of her life, Amy Canizal Flores says her dreams of actually gliding a surfboard across the face of a breaking wave felt impossibly out of reach.

“As a Latina, I could just never picture myself out there,” said the Harbor High School junior. “I mean, I saw a lot of white guys, but I never saw somebody like me, so I was like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not for me’ or ‘Who’s gonna teach me?’”

Amy Canizal Flores (board on head) found her chance to finally surf through the Drop In Coalition.
(Courtesy Drop In Coalition )

Enter the Drop In Coalition, a foundation started in the memory of tech and cannabis entrepreneur Tushar Atre, which has partnered with other local organizations to introduce young Latinas like Amy to the sport of surfing, the mathematical principles that make the act of wave-riding possible and to the vast ecosystem of the Monterey Bay.

“I’m taking biology right now and a lot of the things we learned have come in handy,” said Amy, who aspires to be both a surgeon and a member of Congress one day.

The program’s stated mission: “Helping girls grow with the flow in science, technology, engineering, art and math, as well as surfing. We believe great things happen when young people develop a love of nature and science.”

It’s safe to say Jeff Spicoli would not have lasted on this deck, where marine biology, creative coding, physics, circuits, wave mathematics and oceanography were not just discussed but applied to group projects during afternoon Drop In Coalition meetups.

The timing of the program’s launch, in the middle of the pandemic, gave girls like Amy something to look forward to, she said — and a view she and others would’ve never known existed.

One of the first Drop In Coalition groups enjoying their ocean introduction.
(Courtesy Drop In Coalition )

They would gather on the deck of Atre’s house overlooking the surf break at Pleasure Point, learning about tides, wind and swell patterns from local teachers and surfers who had volunteered to share their surf stoke and their passion for STEAM concepts.

Then the girls, middle school and high school age, coming from as close as Live Oak and as far as Seaside, would learn to put aside their insecurities and squeeze into a thick layer of uncomfortable neoprene and paddle a giant board they could barely carry down the steps out into the chilly Pacific for the first time ever.

To get to the water, they’d walk the 50 or so yards from Atre’s house, past the public bathroom painted with the gigantic whale mural, the creature looking out at the neighborhood from behind the most mysteriously familiar eyes.

The mural painted in honor of Tushar Atre at Pleasure Point.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thanks to local artist Jeremiah Kille, Pleasure Point will never be without Tushar Atre’s inquisitive gaze.

Every friggin’ time I see it ...” said Atre’s good friend Christopher Lochhead.

‘An amazing constellation of friends’


It took 17 months for a the legal system to conduct a preliminary hearing for the four men charged with murdering Atre during an attempted robbery on Oct. 1, 2019. But a judge ruled on Nov. 3 that there is sufficient evidence for the four to stand trial for murder and six other counts that include carjacking, kidnapping and burglary.

Tushar Atre

The lives of Atre and Drop In co-founders Ben Rewis and Lochhead intersected where technology met the natural world. Busy tech entrepreneurs who had found their work-life balance via nature — most often chasing a flow state that results from harnessing wave energy.

“Tushar and I would be working on something and get kind of stuck,” Rewis said. “So we’d go surf and get refreshed from the stoke and come back. And that’s where the idea of Drop In really came from.”

They recall how hard it was to plan anything with Atre, be it a surf trip to Indonesia or even his own 50th birthday party. Atre was mesmerized by and immersed in the daily rhythms of the ocean right outside his window.

“He’d say, ‘What if we go to Indo and the surf is better here?’ or ‘What if we plan a party but then the surf is good?’” Lochhead recalled. “You couldn’t plan anything with him because he didn’t want to miss out. His mindset was: What if there are waves?

Tushar Atre finding an "interstitial moment" in his backyard.

Rewis said Atre liked to say he lived in the interstitial spaces — the moments in between moments — because that’s where you found the waves.

“The reason he had to live by the water was that he had to utilize waves,” Rewis said. “He’d be on a conference call and, unless it was insanely, massively critical, he’d be like, ‘Guys, I gotta ditch.’ He run out, surf for 20 minutes and come back.”

“He’d call,” recalls Lochhead, “and say, ‘Get over here! I just saw 27 unridden waves!’”

If there was one thing Atre talked about beyond wave utilization, his friends say, it was a lack of diversity in the water. Atre’s dark skin and exotic eyes are still not the norm in Santa Cruz — or most surf meccas worldwide — and he wasn’t shy about the issue.

“He hated being one of the only people of color in the water,” Rewis said.

As they waited a torturous nine months between the crime and the May 2020 arrests, constantly fending off aggressive inquiries from tabloid media, it provided some catharsis for Rewis and Lochhead to recognize the wider group of friends Atre had amassed and the obvious mission before them.

“It’s almost like his group of friends was picked to do this. Like Tushar, we’re scrappy, entrepreneurial, different,” Lochhead said. “We feel a massive obligation in this most wonderful way. We feel a massive desire, as Tushar did, to make exactly this kind of difference. So it’s just an amazing constellation of friends.”

Amid the pain of the two-year anniversary of Atre’s death on Oct. 1, there was comfort found in the first-year success of the Drop In Coalition, which had nine groups and 24 program graduates. There is serious talk about expanding the program into other natural world pursuits with math at their cores, such as climbing and mountain biking. There are already plans to take it to other locations, starting with the East Coast.

With the wheels of justice beyond their control, it’s been an important part of the healing process for family and friends.

“You can imagine, through the grief and pain and sorrow and the ongoing investigation and the COVID issues and just everything ...” Lochhead said, voice trailing off.

‘To have the ocean be their metaphor’


East Salinas native Dionne Ybarra, who founded The Wahine Project, has been introducing young Latinas in Monterey County to surfing for a decade and is well aware of its transformational powers.

“These girls live so close to the ocean, it’s their community, yet it’s a world that’s not their world,” she said.

Dionne Ybarra and a Wahine Project student.

So she didn’t hesitate to partner with the Drop In Coalition, taking her program to both a new location and expanding it in completely new dimensions.

“The science and math part, to bring a whole new piece of programming to a group of kids was super cool,” she said. “I was a little nervous taking them out right there at the Point, but every time the ocean met us with just exactly what we needed for those kids. It was awesome to see them face their fears. And to see them have the ocean be their metaphor for all this knowledge they hadn’t been exposed to before.”

Or as Margaret Cariño-Condon, co-founder of Salud y Carino, the key Live Oak organization that connected girls like Amy to the Drop In Coalition, calls it: “Real-life problem-solving situations.”

Pleasure Point surfer and Pacific Collegiate School math teacher Randy Garrett has been fiddling with the concepts of surf calculus for years. He began teaching at PCS when the school campus sat a few hundred yards from West Cliff Drive yet, he immediately realized, “90% of the students in my classes knew nothing about the ocean.”

He started developing what amounts to an intro to oceanography and wave dynamics, and it came in handy on the deck of his good friend and neighbor Atre, whom he’d watched learn to surf in those waters, figuring out his own calculus 15 years earlier.

Tushar charged — he was completely committed to learning it and really worked hard toward mastery. And I remember him distinctly saying when he first got in the water: Where are all the black and brown people?

“Tushar charged — he was completely committed to learning it and really worked hard toward mastery,” he said. “And I remember him distinctly saying when he first got in the water: Where are all the black and brown people?”

While Ybarra and her group helped with that equation while entering the water, having instructors who look like the girls also helped on the deck. For instance, Luli Martinez, a Mexican biologist who earned her Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, and who focused her lesson on endangered sea turtle populations in the Pacific.

Study time above Pleasure Point.

“She could talk about the leatherbacks right here in the bay,” co-founder Rewis said, and the girls learning about something they wouldn’t otherwise know from someone who looks like them creates a moment of “painting themselves into a future.”

As Garrett puts it: “It’s a built-in answer for, ‘Why am I doing this? Why do I need to stay in the education game?’ Many, many students can distill pivot points in their life down to a single moment.”

‘I do know how to surf’


For Ybarra, that pivot point came when she found that her dad had died in Vietnam when she was an infant. That pain was the ultimate inspiration for The Wahine Project. She says it’s why her connection to the Drop In Coalition’s mission was immediate: “It was about what we do in the light of tragedy, how we can turn that into something beautiful.”

And beauty is what you get when you bring this many positive elements to the surface. The feedback the organization has gotten from its early test pilots has been unequivocally positive. Not all who participated aspire to be congresswomen, but all have gained exposure to important knowledge previously unavailable to them, even if it existed right around the corner.

What they do from here is up to them — at least partly. While Amy was able to save up for the foam Costco surfboard to get her surfing life started, she still hasn’t been able to finance a good wetsuit, even though she works multiple jobs when she’s not playing soccer or wrestling at Harbor.

Pleasure Point, the place where first-time surfing smiles are formed.

But, neoprene be damned, even the cold ocean hasn’t stopped her from taking friends on exploratory trips to Cowell Beach. For her the stoke has become real.

She thinks back to how grateful she was for the opportunity the Drop In Coalition would provide her — “I thought about my siblings and how I could teach them to surf, too” — and now wears the pride and self-confidence of a surfer, like those she used to just watch off Pleasure Point.

“People will say, ‘Oh, wait, you know how to surf?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do know how to surf. Let’s go!’”

People will say ‘Oh, wait, you know how to surf?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do know how to surf. Let’s go!’

Tushar

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