Locals create a life vest with a handle to pull kids and adults from the water to help prevent drowning.
By Sharon Stello
When local Andeaux Borunda was working with the Wounded Warrior Project, teaching veterans how to surf after they returned from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, some guys were missing limbs, so it was challenging to keep them afloat and lift them onto the surfboard.
Thinking about this challenge, Borunda eventually designed a life vest with a safety handle, which he calls a StokeGrip, that can be used to assist or retrieve a person in the water and also help them float face up. His wife, Celeste Young, and her mom, Joalene, sewed up the first prototype. But the invention took a backseat while Borunda was busy with a career at surf apparel company Billabong.
Then, a few years ago, he was in Hawaii watching parents teach their kids to surf and he realized the need for his product. He launched the SafeGrom company a couple of years ago, and the life vest and other items have taken off, even partnering with the World Surf League with plans to create a special version of the vest for the organization. Borunda says SafeGrom has also been involved with nonprofits that use surfing in their outreach, including Mauli Ola Foundation, A Walk on Water, Surfers Healing and Operation Surf.
Through their novel life vest, Borunda and his team hope to help reduce the number of drownings among young children each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drownings are the No. 1 cause of death (after birth defects) for kids ages 1 to 4 in the U.S.
“Unfortunately, the statistics are shocking,” Borunda says. “… To think that this is so preventable is frustrating. So we’ve made it our mission to put a dent in those numbers and save some serious lives.”
The business is based in Laguna Beach, where Borunda and his wife have a long history. She’s a third-generation resident of this coastal city and her dad, the late Robert “Bob” Young, helped to start the Sawdust Art Festival and was a marine life painter, capturing and sharing his love for the ocean.
“We feel we are perpetuating the stoke initially started by Bob Young for ocean awareness by creating a tool for children to stay safe and enjoy the beach,” Borunda says.
With these deep roots in Laguna, the couple own the SafeGrom company with partner Tim Ryan, operating out of their Agate Street office. Items are sold at surf shops Costa Azul in Laguna and Killer Dana in nearby Dana Point, and on the company’s website, safegrom.com.
Here, we talk with Borunda and Celeste Young about their company and life in Laguna.
What makes this life jacket different?
Andeaux Borunda: Our U.S.-patented StokeGrip is a safety handle on the back of the vest so a person can be lifted up and out of the water with ease. [It’s] simply the safest life vest for your kid.
Can you tell us about the other products your company carries?
AB: We have many products including kids sunnies—[sunglasses]—sunblock, rash guards, sting ray kits and, soon, a line of wetsuits that will also have the handle on the back—we’re calling it the StokeSuit and [it] will be available … [for] boys and girls. … We are currently developing a baseball cap that has a Kevlar insert and doubles as a safety helmet and also a kids backpack that has an RFID—[radio frequency identification]—chip in the liner that tells you your child’s location. We are all about making products that keep groms safe.
Can you tell us about your background?
AB: [I] started my working career at Häagen-Dazs ice cream next to South Coast theater in 1986 [and] ate so much ice cream, it’s hard to eat to this day. … I have been in the action sports industry for over 30 years with companies such as Rusty, Billabong, Element [and] Von Zipper, among many others. I’ve taken that experience and poured it into the SafeGrom brand.
With such a long family history in Laguna, what do you both love about living here?
Celeste Young: We have a combined total of well over 80 years here in Laguna and I’m a third-generation Laguna Beach resident. My grandpa came to Three Arch Bay back when there were few homes there. Laguna is a very special place to us. There’s a certain magic here in town that is kinda hard to put your finger on, but it’s like nowhere else on earth and we feel super blessed to live here.
Celeste, since your father helped start the Sawdust Art Festival, you must have grown up going there a lot. Have there been many changes over the years?
CY: The festival has changed drastically since its inception … and, to a certain extent, might be a little different from what my dad had envisioned. But, as a community, we should always try to support and nurture this city’s treasure. The magic that the Sawdust festival still generates today is a living testament to his initial vision of creating a “unique tapestry snapshot” of Laguna Beach.