These Local Men Meld a Passion for Sport with a Commitment to Philanthropy

Athleticism and altruism often go hand-in-hand here in the South Bay. For these local men, melding a passion for sport with a commitment to philanthropy always translates to a big win.

Turning the Tide

Jason Napolitano & Jeff Eick
Jason is more or less a South Bay local. Though he was born on Maui, he says that he bounced between the Hawaiian Islands and Manhattan Beach for most of his life. As to be expected for someone who grew up in both California and Hawaii, surfing is a major part of Jason’s day-to-day life.

“For 25+ years I’ve been surfing. Growing up in Hawaii, you were raised at the beach and on the sand, and as soon as I could crawl I was in the ocean,” he says.

Surfing is more than just a hobby for Jason though. He’s also the director of operations for Campsurf—a surf school in Manhattan Beach. He enjoys teaching others to surf, and he and the Campsurf organization use surfing as a way of giving back. Campsurf has partnered with a number of nonprofits like the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation (JMMF) and the Mauli Ola Foundation.

The JMMF offers a specialized ocean therapy program for the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion-West and the West LA Veterans Hospital that centers on surfing. As a JMMF surf instruction partner, Campsurf works with the JMMF to provide surfing instruction to veterans—especially those who’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The JMMF’s ocean therapy program combines informal group discussions with surfing, providing these veterans with a crucial and constructive outlet.

“These veterans have sacrificed so much, so this is a little something that we can do to give back,” Jason says. “The ocean therapy program is amazing, and it really helps some of these people by giving them a little peace of mind. We’ve seen some great outcomes.”

Campsurf also works with the Mauli Ola Foundation, providing surfing instruction to children with cystic fibrosis. “It gives the kids a real outlet,” he says, adding that instruction usually transforms into a sort of beach day, as the children often come along with their families. “It becomes a great family day for them.”

For Jason, surfing is all about pure fun. “That’s what I love about it, and that’s what I try to spread around when I’m teaching it—to just have fun and enjoy the ocean,” he says. And teaching surfing as a career is a real dream for Jason—he honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The only suit I own is a wetsuit, and I’d like to keep it that way,” he says.   

Born in Hermosa Beach, Jeff Eick started surfing in 1952, and as he puts it, he surfed alongside some of the real greats. “I surfed along with LeRoy Grannis, and he was taking pictures of all us while we surfed,” he says.

From Dale Velzy to Hap Jacobs, Jeff notes that he had the chance to surf with some of the most talented surfers of the ‘60s. During the wintertime, he remembers, the older surfers would often build bonfires on the beach. “They’d burn just about anything, even tires,” he says.

Since they didn’t have wetsuits back then, he points out, they would stand around the fire until they were good and warm, and then they’d rush into the water for a few waves. “We’d surf until we got so cold we couldn’t stand it, and then we’d come back out and warm up by the fire and do it again.”

A veteran himself, Jeff served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Following his deployment, he notes that he worked a few different jobs before settling into a career in real estate development. He’s since retired, but surfing has still remained a constant in his life.

After learning that the JMMF was using surfing to provide ocean therapy to veterans with PTSD, he wanted to use his passion as a way of giving back. He volunteers with the JMFF as a surf instructor.

“I just thought it was important , because I am a veteran and I want to give back. I went through a war, and I felt like I could help these veterans who are struggling,” he says.

The ocean therapy, he notes, helps these veterans to distance themselves from what they’ve been through. The surfing and the ocean provide a physical distraction, and Jeff often takes a moment to talk with some of the veterans about their experiences. For most of the veterans, Jeff says, they’re thrilled to be out in the water.

“I had a guy tell me, ‘I don’t care if I catch a wave; I’m just glad to be out here.’ So it’s not so much about teaching them how to surf; it’s about the environment, where they are and watching the water.”

The JMFF’s ocean therapy program, he says, “is trying to help these men and women who’ve put themselves in harm’s way for our well-being.” Jeff is happy to use surfing as a therapeutic tool of sorts. He uses the sport to introduce others to the ocean in a positive fashion, and he’s able to talk with other veterans, hopefully providing a constructive avenue for those who might be in need.

“I deal with them directly, and they deal with me directly,” he says. “They let their shields down a little bit.”

Ending the Cycle

Heath Gregory & Jon Hirshberg

Cycling has always held a special place in Heath Gregory’s life. “I ride Palos Verdes and Malibu, and I’m passionate about this sport,” he says.

Born in Silver City, New Mexico, Heath has fond memories of watching the Tour of the Gila. A five-stage cycling race based in Silver City, the event is one of the premier cycling races in the U.S. In 2009 the South Bay resident took his wife and children to see the Tour de France, and he happened to see a one-day spin event that was connected with the tour.

“It was a spectacle,” he said, noting that the experience—the crowd all spinning together in unison, that engaging collective energy—really stuck with him. Heath wanted to find a way to combine his love of cycling with an altruistic cause, ideally something related to cancer research.

“I lost four family members to cancer,” he says, and Heath felt the need to support the fight against cancer. Eventually he connected with Jon Hirshberg, who originally started the first LA Cancer Challenge in the ‘90s. Together they developed the idea for an outdoor stationary cycling event that would occur right at the base of the Manhattan Beach Pier.

Participants would ride a stationary bike outdoors—within sight of the Pacific—while receiving guidance from instructors and celebrity guest riders. The event would benefit three different charities: the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, the Uncle Kory Foundation and the Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach.

In May 2013 the first Tour de Pier was held right by the pier, and Heath and Jon raised $339,000 for their charities. Since 2013 the event has actually raised nearly $3 million for cancer research and support charities.

“What we have is this ability to weave this communal message over the course of five hours,” says Heath. “We want to create a space for people who’ve been affected by cancer.”

The event not only spurs people to get outdoors and enjoy an invigorating cycling session, but Jon and Heath also designed the Tour de Pier to encourage people to come together and share their stories, personal triumphs and struggles against cancer. “Everybody has been touched by cancer in one form or another, and this event is a way to not only raise money and find a cure for the disease, but it’s also a way for the community to heal and share their silent battles,” he says.

Jon shares, “When my dad passed from pancreatic cancer, that was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me.” When he lost his father to pancreatic cancer in ’97, Jon—a Boston native—says he made a commitment to embracing a healthy lifestyle.

Jon notes that he’s always been something of an athlete. From marathons to triathlons, he’s done it all. “But cycling has been a real core passion of mine,” he says.

In 1997 Jon helped create the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and he worked to organize active events, like the LA Cancer Challenge, to help benefit the foundation and other cancer research organizations.

After connecting with Heath, the two came up with the idea for the Tour de Pier. The event, he notes, truly embodies his love for healthy living. Because the roughly half-day event is basically one enormous spin class, he believes the Tour de Pier has a strong community angle to it.

“It creates this community of people who’ve been affected by cancer,” he says. The event creates an opportunity of sorts for South Bay residents to not only enjoy the outdoors and support an important cause, but it also gives locals a chance to build a support structure for those who’ve been impacted by cancer.

“We’ve built this chance for people in the South Bay to support others emotionally and to also show how strong the community is,” he says. “The experience is quite emotional.”