We’ve all heard the age-old advice that the key to a successful non-profit, or any business for that matter, is passion. If your heart isn’t in it, it is going be difficult if not impossible to stay the course when things get complicated. And when your job operates by the whims of the jungle, where what takes fifteen minutes in the States can take fifteen days, complicated is your life.
Specifically, the life of Neil Christiansen, Founder and CEO of Give and Surf. It’s hard to find a man with more heart than Neil, who moved to Panama three years ago to merge two of his loves together, giving and surfing, and create an organization that provides education programs for children in local indigenous communities.
It began with one of the crossroads moments many of us have in life.
“I was getting to the point in my career where I could stick with it for ten or fifteen years more, and hang my hat on the fact that I was a successful medical device salesman, but I wasn’t content with finishing my working career with that. I decided I wanted to quit my job and to travel around the world helping others in places I could surf.”
When he couldn’t find a surfing or philanthropic organization that resembled what he was looking for, Neil took a risk and decided to create his own. The deal-breaker for many organizations Neil researched was sustainability and long-term effectiveness.
“I could see what other non-profits were doing in surf communities, or in other surfing areas where there are impoverished communities, but I thought I could do it in a more personal, intimate way that really connects to the communities we’re working in, not just parachuting aid.”
Neil’s first step was to move to Bocas del Toro, the island archipelago of Panama perfect for his plan: great for surfing, and home to indigenous communities outside government funding. Neil arrived in the jungle knowing barely any Spanish, but set his sights on building schools and creating programs to fill in the gaps in access to education. The early days weren’t easy.
“I studied (Spanish) religiously. I was living in the middle of the jungle without electricity, without running water. Super off the grid. I would just study with my headlamp in the middle of the dark, preparing for the next day’s class for the kids.”
Neil stayed the course, sure in his heart that this program could work. Beginning with building a school, library, and septic tank, Neil laid down the groundwork for a new preschool, and began seeking volunteers.
With time and persistence, Give and Surf added an after school program, summer school, an English program for adults, and a field school. The life-blood of the organization are the volunteers, who assist in fundraising from the States, and then often visit Give and Surf in Panama to teach the students and see the projects they’ve funded. This real, tangible connection to the work being done makes volunteering for Give and Surf a unique experience.
“Our volunteers get to teach; they get involved. We orient them on the community, we give them objectives and goals and responsibilities within the projects, so they’re developing lesson plans, coming up with new ideas, and really becoming immersed in what we do. We’ve added a music program and the Kindergarten, and built a new Elementary School, two new cafeterias, a new library, a new playground, two new bathrooms and septic tanks, and a multitude of other improvements.”
For those who can’t fly down to Panama, the benefits of working with a small organization are still easy to see, literally. Because the organization is so localized, Give and Surf is still capable of informing volunteers and fundraisers exactly where their money goes. If you follow them on social media, you can see it instantaneously.
“If I say I want to build a new school, if we have the funding, tomorrow we get it done. There isn’t politics in the organization; there isn’t a laundry list of bureaucrats we have to go through. We get things done: you give me $10, that $10 is going straight into the community.”
Where the red tape lies is in the infrastructure, or lack there of, in Bocas.
In order for preschool to happen each morning, Neil must boat to several locations to pick up the volunteers from where they stay on Red Frog beach, and then retrieve the students from their many isolated coves. Most pick-ups require one of the volunteers to hop up on the dock and summon the kids, hiding behind the trees with their irresistibly modest smiles. It often takes at least an hour to get everyone together, and then boat to preschool, on another island.
“I love kids, it just comes natural to me. I know how to get someone to smile and get someone engaged, and active, and stimulated. That’s what teaching is, that’s what I think the most important thing is to teach the children we work with. They come from such suppressed living environments, and they’re very isolated. The most important thing is to get them out of their shells and expressing themselves.”
As Neil’s first Kindergarteners enter second grade at the nearby elementary school, Give and Surf continues to think ahead to what is next for the local communities. As the number of programs for each community grows and the children and adults continue to learn, the time comes to reach out further, to build from the ground up again. Give and Surf has just begun building schools for another nearby community. What may seem a small victory to an outsider is in in actuality an important tribute to the sustainability and persistence that Neil aimed to attain.
“The party was going on in my head…until now. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I couldn’t stop dreaming about it, and I couldn’t stop working. It was a good obsession.”
Jetset Times visited Give and Surf while in Panama, and we were deeply moved by the effect that they have already had on the communities in Bocas del Toro. Seeing how excited the children were to learn and how incredibly smart they are was life changing, and inspired us to get involved.
To further support Give and Surf, and to live up to their commitment to sustainability, Jetset Times has created a Global Partnership with Give and Surf. We will help to fundraise for future projects, and provide our readers updates about our favorite Panamanian baby-geniuses. Please join us in contributing to an organization where you can see the change happen in front of your eyes. We hope someday you get to boat cove to cove and meet the kids whose education you helped make a reality.