Founder, Give & Surf
Welcome to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Image: Callahan/surfEXPLORE

#3. Stop and think. Image: Callahan/surfEXPLORE

The Inertia

As surfers, we are natural travelers. We see the world as a limitless canvas to explore coastlines and make connections with others, both tourists and locals. Many of us give back in small tokens of appreciation to those we meet on land or sea, whereas others take on a whole different life, dedicated to serving others in places with surf. Surfers develop non-profit initiatives to protect the ocean, work with wildlife, and serve communities. The old surfer was a wandering wave searcher. The new surfer finds waves, makes connections, and is drawn to stay with a purpose. This is the story of one such surfer on a mission to give and surf.

In late 2010, there lived a 26-year-old dreamer in San Diego who traded in his conventional, happy life to embark on his most challenging journey: starting a non-profit in the jungles of Panama to assist those he thought had less and needed more.

I am that man: Neil Christiansen, Founder and Director of Give & Surf. Living and working with that dream for the last three years has altered my perception of myself, people, non-profits, and the world we all live in.

First, rewind to Old Neil: a passionate, caring individual caught up in a carefree young professional lifestyle in sunny San Diego. Zero complaints. An outsider would say I had it all. My inside said I needed more. To fill this void, my naïve, unqualified, stubborn self concluded I needed to cash it all in and start my own non-profit, Give & Surf.

Fast forward to the present day and Give & Surf is a successful, locally embedded 501(c)(3) non-profit organization empowering volunteers to assist indigenous communities in Bocas del Toro, Panama, through education and community development projects. I spend my days overseeing school programs, volunteers, and the long-term development of the non-profit. This reality looks a lot different than my days alone, blindly navigating this ship through rainstorms and daily challenges. Today’s successes came from yesterday’s lessons and mistakes in the practice of community development. These are my realizations from this roller coaster journey.

Realization #1: We are not martyrs

“I have found that, among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” Maya Angelou

I arrived in Bocas del Toro intending to help others, but what I learned was that the root of this decision was a desire to help myself, to liberate my soul. We humans do what we think will make us happy. The reason I, and most others, dedicate our lives to assist communities in the name of an educational, health-related, or environmental cause is because we want a life of serving others.

I often speak with individuals and groups about the work I do and constantly hear things like, “It is so incredible what you have given up to help these people,” or “You have sacrificed so much to help the children.” Avoiding a deeper conversation, I nod and show appreciation for the heartfelt sentiment in these comments. This sentiment, however, is a false perception of the humanitarian, or at least of me.

I don’t see humanitarians as martyrs driving out to save the world and choosing a lesser life, whether it be fighting to feed starving children in Africa or save pandas from extinction. I wanted to leave my high-paying, comfortable lifestyle. I wanted to drain my bank account for something I believed in. Nothing was sacrificed or given up. Because I wanted to do it. Those who have sacrificed or given up something in the name of a cause or injustice were likely unwillingly forced to do so by war, some dictator or outside force. On occasion, I do meet fellow do-gooders of the world who have embodied this image of martyrdom. They have somehow convinced themselves that the only worthy life is that of self-negation in the service of others. I, on the other hand, am doing exactly what I want to do. My experiences running Give & Surf feed my soul and make me whole.

Realization #2: Bigger is not always better

I started Give & Surf with big dreams. We would work all over the world helping others. But those days are long gone. What I run now is a small grass roots organization that allocates its funds appropriately and effectively with zero red tape. Through my experiences, I’ve learned how beneficial a small-in-size, large-in-focus organization can be in making positive changes for communities without disrupting what makes them unique and special. Our small-scale reality makes this possible.

When the community expresses a need for a new school, or a teacher wants to start a new project, we hit the ground running within days to get it done. We simply outline the need, determine the funding required, decide who will execute it, and go to work. Some projects fail and others succeed, but little gets lost in the mix.  Our successes are supportive to the development of the community and strengthen the organization. It is important to recognize the symbiotic relationship Give & Surf and I have with the people we work with. It is a relationship built on mutual benefit.

Projects that followed this simple formula – a new elementary school, playground, school restoration, bathroom/septic tank installations, dock construction, two cafeterias, library, and community garden – all took less than four months to complete, from idea inception to last nail. Just two weeks ago, we decided to start teaching pre-school and kindergarten to a new community, and now we already have classes going twice a week. On March 1st, we met with the community regarding the fact that 17 middle school students were without transportation to school for the school year that started on March 10th. Within days, the Give & Surf team organized a fundraiser that raised the $3,500 we needed. Small works. Small is powerful.

Yes, Give & Surf is successful for its lack of bureaucracy, but even more so because every person on the team feels responsible and empowered to get things done when there is a need. Roles are easily defined, managed, and self-governed because every team member understands how important they are to the big picture. All the support we receive comes from people who feel connected in one way or another with who we are: a family of individuals held together by the care and love we have for the children we work with. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to have so much support from volunteers and donors, and of course an amazing team of individuals committed to what we do.

Realization #3: Stop and think

Tourists, especially surfers, find themselves in areas of the world where the average household income is a fraction of what it is at home. If you are seeking wave-rich coastlines with empty lineups you are not landing on the Gold Coast or North Shore. You are ending up in parts of the world where indigenous communities live simply; where people have far less material or financial wealth than you. I understand today that “living simply” is the correct choice of words. Three-years-ago-Neil would have said these people are living without anything – poor, sad, impoverished, struggling. As tourists, we have all felt similarly. But meet these people, connect with them, and you will realize these negative connotations should not be placed on individuals living differently than you. They are happy, content, and at peace with living simple lives with simple pleasures – a lesson in life far more valuable than saving for retirement or granite counter tops.

I realized the importance that what is good or considered important to you does not apply to the rest of the world. This is the most difficult thing in development work because, to a degree, every humanitarian-based non-profit is imparting their beliefs on what others need in an environment foreign to them. Give & Surf is no different. I struggle with this daily.

Who am I really? A white surfer dude from New Jersey who changed his life to help others. I am in foreign territory providing native people programs that are socially important to me – where I come from. Give & Surf does its best to understand and respect moral and cultural values, and for this reason I think and hope we are not disrupting but enhancing the lives of those we work with.

I often think about this: When you do not have something and never had knowledge of this thing, but are then introduced to it and through this understand, appreciate, and develop the need for it:  was something actually missing in your life, or is this new idea/thing polluting your otherwise pure and simple life?

What gives a foreign-run non-profit the right to make choices for others in the name of being “humanitarian?” When is helping really exploiting, and where do we draw the line? Or is all my helping just exploiting, so I can feel good about myself?

Realization #4: Who needs who?

“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.  What you’ll discover will be wonderful.  What you’ll discover is yourself.”  -Alan Alda

Yes, the core of who I am remains intact, as this was the foundation my parents, peers, and experiences created in me, but today, after three years of Give & Surf, I see the world differently. My actions and thoughts reflect that shift in perspective.

Old Neil thought these less fortunate strangers in the jungle needed him. Old Neil felt strongly that they needed new education programs and facilities. My preconceived notions of the poor and “needy” had me stuck in this mindset, telling me that I was somehow needed here. Old Neil didn’t realize that, in many ways, I needed them more than they needed me. The myth of this one-sided relationship between giver and receiver has faded now, opening my eyes to a more beautiful reality – one of mutual exchange through shared contributions of knowledge, experience, and emotion. In the end, it stopped being about them needing me or me needing them.

Like a family, we need each other.

  • RB2

    charity without christ?

    Might as well have the government,the U.N., communism, GolfAid,Wham-0 or FARC do it also.
    “The modern world, which denies personal guilt and
    admits only social crimes, which has no place for personal repentance
    but only public reforms, has divorced Christ from His Cross; the
    Bridegroom and Bride have been pulled apart. What God hath joined
    together, men have torn asunder. As a result, to the left is the Cross;
    to the right is Christ. Each has awaited new partners who will pick them
    up in a kind of second and adulterous union. Communism comes along and
    picks up the meaningless Cross; Western post-Christian civilization
    chooses the unscarred Christ.

    Communism has chosen the Cross in
    the sense that it has brought back to an egotistic world a sense of
    discipline, self-abnegation, surrender, hard work, study, and dedication
    to supra-individual goals. But the Cross without Christ is sacrifice
    without love. Hence, Communism has produced a society that is
    authoritarian, cruel, oppressive of human freedom, filled with
    concentration camps, firing squads, and brain-washings.

    The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His
    Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to
    God is a cheap, feminized, colourless, itinerant preacher who deserves
    to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount, but also merits
    unpopularity for what He said about His Divinity on the one hand, and
    divorce, judgment, and hell on the other. This sentimental Christ is
    patched together with a thousand commonplaces, sustained sometimes by
    academic etymologists who cannot see the Word for the letters, or
    distorted beyond personal recognition by a dogmatic principle that
    anything which is Divine must necessarily be a myth. Without His Cross,
    He becomes nothing more than a sultry precursor of democracy or a
    humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears.” Fulton J. Sheen

  • Michael Rhoda

    I’m so sorry that the previous post had to be the first feedback you received on this exceptionally well written and thoughtful article. My wife and I moved to the highland village of Santa Fe, Veraguas, Panama, this past January. I am presently working full-time (over the internet), but have aspirations of volunteering in our little village. Like you, my wife and I have worried that our foreign footprint might somehow damage the local culture. And we have wondered if we are being presumptuous in thinking that these people even need our help. You have had more time to think through these issues, so I suspect that we can benefit from the path you have traveled as we attempt to find our way in this. The kindnesses and wisdom the local community has already shown us leaves me no doubt but that what you say is true: the giving and receiving flow in both directions. We recently made a quick surf trip to Santa Catalina, so we think our next trip will be out closer to where you are. If we do pass through the area, we’d like to stop by to see and hear a little more about the good work that you are doing.

  • Pulseguy

    I’ve spent the last 20 years learning how to help people. It isn’t so obvious as one would think it should be.

    One thing I’ve learned is start each ‘helping’ session with one thing in mind – “I am here to be truly helpful, and I do not know what that is.” I then ask for, look for, and even wait for guidance. The direction it can’t come from me. If it does, I just laid a trip on someone.

  • Tara Ruttenberg

    i’m grateful for your humility and honesty in sharing this perspective – especially the parts about small is powerful, and ‘getting over ourselves’ and our Western-biased mindset as surfers working in local communities in foreign places we’ve adopted as our own. this is such an important coversation in the realm of surfer-philanthropy and surfers seeking to ‘do-good’ in the world. i hope others doing similar work can learn from your experiences and stop seeing themselves as saviors or martyrs helping the poor become ‘civilized.’ there’s an important distinction there between romanticising poverty and embracing diversity of culture and worldview, and your article touches on that in useful ways. as you mentioned, we all experience a ‘good life’ in different, subjective ways, and acknowleding that as a premise for surf-voluntourism-for-development work is a really key point. IMHO i think shifting the conversation from ‘needs’ to ‘assets’ in defining community objectives is also powerful; rather than assuming there is lack or need (which sends the message that the way people live their lives isn’t good enough), we can focus on strengthening existing community assets that support social and environmental wellbeing as defined by the communities themselves, and build from there. thanks again for sharing.

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