Founder, Give & Surf

The Inertia

Give & Surf started out of a desire to live true to myself by doing something incredibly valuable for others. Originally, I had no plans other than to quit my job, a high-paying, yet unfulfilling, medical sales job and travel around the world volunteering in areas where I could surf. I wanted to get the most out of my travels and figured providing smiles to others through volunteering and scoring waves was the way to go. It wasn’t until I started to research my options that I decided to turn this into my own organization and, truthfully, I never thought of starting a non-profit until the light bulb went off.

What is going on in Bocas that could benefit from a gringo sticking his head in the business of simple living indigenous communities? Well, my introduction to the world of truth and hardship came two and a half years ago. I was taught by great friends Margaret and Henry who run La Loma Jungle Lodge in the Bahia Honda community where many of our programs are now located. Living with them I learned about the community, the lack of education and the truly limiting environment the children and community members live in.

Upon my arrival, I found a dilapidated school building where two government-appointed teachers taught 1st-6th grade and showed up to teach half the time. This irregular schedule due to weather and lack of government supervision had existed since the introduction of a formal education in the late 70s. The inconsistency and two hours of class a day had obviously left the children and families of this island archipelago with a misconception of education and its importance. It was all they had ever known so, with the help of La Loma, we set out to make improvements and change their understanding of education. These changes targeted a community of 200 people living around a horseshoe-shaped bay on Bastimentos Island.

One must understand the environment we work in to fully understand and appreciate what it is that Give & Surf does and the lengths we go to in order to get things done. Bocas del Toro, amongst other things, is an island archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama near the border of Costa Rica. This means all transportation is done on the water in either motorboats or dugout canoes called cayucos. To most passing through for a week, their experiences encompass the tourist-laden sites of Isla Colon or parts of Isla Bastimentos–full of smelly backpackers, loud music, postcard beaches, and an island vibe that stinks of Bob Marley. This represents a small fraction of the archipelago and couldn’t be further from the Bocas del Toro I know.

Twenty minutes away by boat, life is different. Here you find thatched homes tucked away over the water in the mangrove-covered islands, locals hand-lining for fish from their cayucos, children paddling an hour to school, and a constant stillness in the air. The inhabitants are soft-spoken, simple-minded individuals who live off the land without electricity, running or clean water, bathrooms, and education. The area is often plagued by months of rain and very tough living conditions. These communities exist for miles upon miles throughout the archipelago and are the true representation of the area–nearly 2,000 square miles with a population of 150,000 individuals, the majority being the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people, with whom we work.

The area of Bocas we work in, when I arrived, was a fragmented community of isolated homes around a bay. There was no sense of community and communication amongst the families which made everything we hoped to achieve very difficult. Little by little, we brought this community together. We started with the children. The first education program was a true challenge of strength and perseverance. We set out to start a preschool/kindergarten for the 3 to 5-year-old children. This meant driving a boat to every house, rain or shine, and picking up the little ones. This process alone can take an hour. It is something we do every day for the preschool, after-school program, and summer school. This is a small example of logistics making life and running an organization difficult. These challenges are worth it because we have created a new sense of community amongst the children and parents where there wasn’t one before.

The tranquility and simplicity of the area should be appreciated and remain unchanged, for this is why my neighbors live the way they do. While we want to preserve this, we have chosen to introduce education and community development projects to these neglected communities. This was not necessarily my plan from the start. All I knew was I wanted to help. How I would help was determined after months of observing and understanding the new world I lived in. With my new family at La Loma Jungle Lodge, the projects came naturally on a case-by-case basis.

First, it was a playground funded by great supporters Marj and Gary, then a preschool, followed by an after-school program, an english program, summer school, a music program, and countless construction projects. We built a new elementary school, two cafeterias, a library, bathrooms/septic tanks, water treatment systems, a community garden and more. One thing led to another and, as more volunteers came, our goals became more ambitious. I set out to help others and what came of it was an improved education system for two communities, not by design, but by hard-headed willpower.

Truthfully, the changes that came of this can be seen best through understanding the children and how they have grown in the last two years. Yes, their knowledge of the world and subjects has expanded as it should, but it’s the personality changes that are most remarkable. What were once childhoods of isolation and limited stimulation are now filled with weeks of daily classes, activities, learning english, field trips, and a ton of laughter. This can only lead to a positive change in attitude and confidence. I can honestly say I have recognized significant changes in every child because of the experiences they have had through our programs being taught by so many wonderful volunteers from around the world. This newly discovered confidence and rambunctious behavior was brought on through my unconventional, wild approach to teaching. This approach was initially met by terror, then curiosity, and now full on acceptance and captivation.

I have been going full speed ahead in Panama for the last two years and it has provided me the most fulfilling and challenging experience ever imagined. For the last two months, I have taken a page out of the “How To Make This Non-Profit Work and Last” book. This means hiring awesome teachers, coming back to the States and approaching the non-profit as a business: team, goals, fundraising, partnership development. I am stepping into a new, necessary role where I can make sure what we do in Panama will continue for years to come. What was once a throw all your money at a dream idea is now turning into making it work for the long term. We need support and I am busting my ass to get it. I have until December to get as much done as possible before I head back to my Panamanian family. In just two months, I have accomplished so much for the future of Give & Surf that would be impossible if I was in Panama. Among these developments are building a team of volunteers/interns, writing grants, partnering with SDSU/Groundswell Education, UCSD, and fundraising for a new boat. Looking past tomorrow and into the next few years, I would like to expand the work we do to other communities in Panama and other areas of the world. This is however 100% dependent on the support we receive from volunteers, donations, foundations, and individuals that want to help. Without continued support, I can see how a small grassroots-run organization could not withstand the test of time. Here is my call to action opportunity.

You can help by:

1) Donating to our new school-boat fundraiser here. We use this boat all day, every day to transport children, volunteers, community members and materials to work sites. No boat=no school.

2) Volunteer in Panama. Come visit us! Contact info@giveandsurf.org

3) Be part of the team and contact me about helping propel the organization forward. Any help is greatly appreciated. neil@giveandsurf.org



  • Zlop

    Great write up Niel and great work!

  • Jess Ponting

    Neil is crushing it. You can participate and earn university credit through groundeswelltravel.com

  • Ryan Kuja

    Good stuff, Neil. I can feel your passion and desire pulling you forward. Your energy is palpable. As someone who has explored starting a community development project in South Africa, been an aid worker in South Sudan, and lived in several other resource -poor settings in the developing world, including Kenya, Mozambique and India, I resonate deeply with your desire to help. The issue is that when we participate in cross-cultural service work, there is potential for a great deal of harm to be done (I recommend the book When Helping Hurts…though its written through a Christian lens it offers wisdom for people of any faith). We bring our lens, our assumptions, our beliefs–often without questioning them–and can end up hurting ourselves and those we seek to help. I challenge you–as a fellow surfer, explorer, and lover of the marginalized–to ask yourself difficult questions as you continue to press into this work, the questions that most North Americans and Europeans who try to help others outside their own contexts do not ask. Tough questions about getting our ego needs met by helping people in exotic places, the power that us white people from the global North wield automatically when in the global South, the nature of what it means to be in mutually life giving relationships that are truly transformative–for us and the ones we serve. Going deep into our own stories and asking ourselves hard questions and getting honest about the raw, messiness of our inner world and our shadow side is the only hope we have in participating in cross-cultural projects that relieve poverty and catalyze transformation.

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