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.