Giving Back (And Taking Waves)
Surf-centric volunteer organizations aim to help coastal communities while scoring waves around the world. But can these groups actually effect meaningful change between sessions?
In early March of this year, a low-pressure system blitzed through the Western Atlantic and delivered some of the biggest waves the Dominican Republic had seen in over a decade. At La Puntilla, the island’s premier big-wave spot, locals and visiting surfers alike were dusting off their rhino chasers and fastening their big-wave vests in preparation for the historic swell.
Sure enough, the waves were already reeling on my first day in the Dominican Republic—the only problem was that I was nowhere near them.
“Oh god, that was a dirty diaper,” said Christian Shaw, pulling rubbish from the shallow, stagnant canal we were drifting down on SUPS. Shaw, a skinny, bearded volunteer from Plastic Tides—an environmental non-profit started by avid stand-up paddlers—was leading our group on a cleanup in the narrow, freshwater canal behind Callejon De La Loma, one of the poorer neighborhoods on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, about a mile from the ocean. The marshy shorelines were littered with trash, as locals notoriously use the waterway to dump their garbage. Trying my best to keep my lunch down after Shaw’s announcement, I realized this was not going to be a typical surf trip.
A few weeks before, I had been invited to tag along on this trip with Changing Tides Foundation (CTF)—A non-profit founded by women surfers back in 2016 with the goal of partnering with community organizations in the places they visit on surf trips as a way to give back. According to one of the CTF co-founders, Becky Mendoza, their goal is to raise awareness and money for these local organizations after they leave through fundraisers and social media campaigns, eventually helping other travelers connect and volunteer with the locals groups. Last year, CTF raised money to fund a locally-administered, 10-week program in Bocas del Toro, Panama, that focused on women’s empowerment, marine ecology and teaching local girls how to swim and eventually surf.
For this trip they partnered with the Mariposa Foundation, a local organization in Cabarete—a popular surfing destination in the Dominican Republic—whose goal is to educate and empower local girls from impoverished areas by helping them further their education and teaching them how to swim, surf and be good stewards of the environment. Our plan was to spend a little over a week with six of the girls in the program who knew how to surf. But first on the agenda was picking up trash with the girls in the canals behind the neighborhood where some of them live.
Just 20 minutes into our paddle, my bucket was already half full of trash. Soranny, a 15-year-old local girl with glasses and braids, steered the SUP around a tangle of low-hanging tree branches while I sat on the front of the board, collecting discarded coke bottles and scummy candy wrappers.
Speaking to her in broken Spanish, I learned that Soranny lives near the Mariposa center with her cousins and her grandmother. Many of the other girls in the program come from impoverished homes, some living in one-room houses with dirt floors. According to the program’s director, Patricia Thorndike Suriel, the Mariposa center provides a safe space for women to become more educated in an area with high teen pregnancy rates and few career and educational opportunities for young women. Suriel believes that even the act of coming together to pick up trash can instill confidence in young women, teaching that they’re in control of their lives and their environment.
Mendoza paddled by me, moving slowly as not to tip her inflatable craft with Pamela, one of the program’s staffers, sitting on the nose. Mendoza’s a lawyer by trade, but became interested in the idea that surfers can do good work while chasing waves back in 2014, when she pulled a hamstring right before getting ready to leave on a trip to Nicaragua. Instead of cancelling the whole thing, she decided to go anyway, taking water filters to distribute while she was out of the ocean, nursing her injury. Shortly thereafter, she brought more water filters on a trip to Mexico, and everything snowballed from there, eventually leading her to start CTF with some of her closest friends.
As we drifted further down the canal, scooping up rubbish in the sweltering heat, I felt my mind continually going back to the waves. Were we missing the best of the swell? Would we finish this cleanup in time for a glass-off session? With such a promising forecast leading up to the trip, most surfers would likely find it hard to think about anything else.
The desire to give back to the communities we visit as traveling surfers isn’t a new phenomenon. NGOS and philanthropically-minded ocean lovers have been doing volunteer work in far-flung surf destinations for decades, ranging from surfers bringing mosquito nets to Mentawai Island villages to fight the spread of malaria to building schools in Costa Rica to pro surfers organizing board drives for children in South Africa.
Like other surf-related volunteer trips, this one penciled in time in the lineup. But before I had arrived in the Dominican Republic, I wondered how well the selfish pursuit of surfing and selfless act of volunteering would actually mix. Are volunteering and bagging waves inherently at odds? Are core surfers really able to have meaningful, positive impacts on disenfranchised coastal communities? Or, at the end of the day, does chasing waves limit the efficacy of surf-centric volunteering?
At this point, you’ve likely heard of the concept of “voluntourism,” wherein adventure-seeking travelers weave volunteer work into their vacations, often building schools, teaching English to local children or participating in environmental conservation projects. While it may sound all well and good, there’s an oft-referenced 2008 study conducted by a tourism research firm which found that, after surveying 300 organizations that market to those seeking voluntourism experiences, an estimated 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation and collectively spend around $2 billion annually on such trips, swapping poolside lounging for the promise to make a positive impact on the local area.
Surfers contribute to this statistic as well. If you were to Google the phrase “surf volunteer travel,” you’d get lost in the number of organizations offering trips for surfers looking to give back to local communities around the world while also getting the chance to catch a few waves.
Volunteering while traveling is no doubt a well-intentioned way to explore the world and experience new places. But volunteer travelers, along with voluntourism organizations in general, have come under scrutiny over the past few years. Some find fault with the idea of voluntourism on moral ground, stating that it’s patriarchal to assume that tourists, with little labor or teaching skills, can assess the needs of a very complex developing country and solve a problem in the short span of a week or two—and that, perhaps, it does more to stroke the ego of the visitor than help the local community.
A couple years ago, a reporter for The New York Times was in Haiti and stumbled upon a group of volunteers stirring cement while building a school. Sitting right next to them was a group of “muscular Haitian masons” who stood by watching, “perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.” The sight made the reporter wonder if maybe their good intentions had been misplaced, raising questions posed by many critical of overseas volunteer work: wouldn’t the money they used traveling to Haiti be better spent employing local laborers who perhaps needed the work? And what was going to happen with the school once the volunteers were done? Did the volunteers have the budget to train and employ local teachers to run the school after they left the community?
Then there are a few examples of altruistic motives going horribly awry. A research paper authored by Amy Norman, a researcher at the Queen Mary University of London, and Linda Richter, a PHD and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council explains that, despite their good intentions, volunteer tourists cycling through orphanages to help out for a short period of time can be psychologically detrimental to kids, leaving them with attachment issues. Next Generation Nepal, an NGO working to rescue kids from orphanages, reported on an orphanage in Kathmandu that was run by a local Nepali woman who abused the kids in her care, advertising through volunteering agencies to attract foreign charitable travelers and pocketing donated money into her own accounts. Once the children were rescued from the orphanage, the NGO found that many of the kids in her care had living parents and some of them had been stolen from their homes.
According to Tara Ruttenberg, writer and PHD candidate in Development Studies at Wageningen University, surfers who choose to volunteer around the world should do their research before diving into service work in a foreign place. Throughout her graduate studies in sustainable surf tourism and time spent chasing waves around the world, Ruttenberg’s seen well-intentioned surf volunteers travel to wave-adjacent communities to help out in ways that turned out to be not-so-helpful—like when she watched surf voluntourists teach indigenous children in Central America the importance of the standard American dietary food pyramid, which some doctors in the U.S. now blame for the rise in adult and child obesity.
“It’s ridiculous and culturally insensitive to be teaching something like that in a place where the majority of foods on the pyramid are not at all a part of the traditional diet, are not harvested locally or even accessible to the communities where they are being taught,” Ruttenberg told me over email recently. “This sends the message that, ‘Your food is wrong and not what educated, civilized, healthy people eat,’ instilling the idea that local ways of life are somehow not good enough.”
The problem with many forms of surf volunteer travel, Ruttenberg says, is when non-profits or travelers adopt a “White Savior Complex”—a critical term used for people from traditionally wealthy nations who travel to developing countries in order to “save” them from poverty, with little respect for the local way of life. There’s an Instagram account called Barbie Savior, satirizing this type of traveling volunteer, which posts images of white Barbie dolls holding dolls representing African children, with captions like, “Orphans take the best photos! So. Cute….#blackbabiesarethecutest”, or a Barbie sharing her essential oils with locals as an easy way to “revamp the local health care system.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to support the well-being of other humans on the planet,” says Ruttenberg, stating that infrastructure projects like building boat docks and bridges, clean water initiatives and providing transportation support can be very valuable for communities. But, according to Ruttenberg, these programs are only helpful if they address an actual need expressed by local communities.
Dr. Leon Mach, a professor of sustainable tourism at The School for Fields Studies in Bocas del Toro, has seen what can happen when surf voluntourism organizations actually do meet a community’s needs. Over the past decade, a group called Surf for Life has completed over 27 projects in eight countries, ranging from renovating existing schools in Nicaragua to constructing a computer lab in Guatemala. Project Waves of Optimism (who is no longer in operation) helped build the first community health center in the Nicaraguan village of Gigante and assisted in launching the town’s first public bus system, which resulted in an 80-percent increase in high school attendance among local kids.
Most surf voluntourism organizations charge surfers a fee (sometimes $1,000 a week) in exchange for accommodation, food, transport to nearby surf breaks and other excursions like zip-lining or camping trips—all while organizing opportunities for surfers to volunteer in the community. The funds surfers bring with them help sustain the organization, with many employing local, long-term staffers who, in Mach’s words, are “making dick” while “making a lot of sacrifices because they care.”
According to Mach, even if you look at surf voluntourism through a cynical lens, believing some traveling surfers are more interested in the experience of volunteering than actually effecting meaningful change themselves, that’s still not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s called egotourism a lot of times for a reason,” admits Mach. “People want to have that capital or something to put on a resume that they went somewhere and helped people. But I think if that’s the carrot that’s dangling in front of people to get them to do something while on a surf trip that’s just marginally better than doing it another way, I’m an advocate.”
Ten years ago, when then-30-year-old New York surfer Dave Aabo was in the Peace Corps, working with coffee farmers in the mountains of Northern Peru, he would travel down to the coast regularly and visit the small fishing village of Lobitos. Fronting the town was a long, flawless left-hand point with mechanical waves peeling for a hundred yards—often times going unridden, which Aabo soon found out was due to the fact that the locals didn’t have access to surf equipment.
Aabo and a few of his friends got together and persuaded Global Surf Industries to donate a hundred surfboards to the community. When the boards arrived, they ran a two-week pilot program, teaching 50 or 60 kids in the town how to surf, doing beach cleanups and giving them English lessons.
“We wanted to introduce surfing and bring surfing opportunities in a sustainable way, one that locals could benefit from,” says Aabo, now 41 and living back
in New York. “It wasn’t just this handout, like, ‘Hey, this is your lucky day! You get a surfboard.’”
After receiving positive feedback from the community, they continued the program, attracting volunteers from around the world to help out in Lobitos. From there, Waves for Development was born, a non-profit that now helps organize trips for surfers who want to do volunteer work between sessions, not only in Peru, but places like Nicaragua and Mexico, too.
Aabo is aware of the negative connotations that can surround voluntourism and the “Barbie Savior” mentality that sometimes comes along with it, which is why community consultation and collaboration is the key to success in his eyes. Waves for Development employs local staff as surf instructors and volunteer coordinators and makes sure to hire local contractors during any construction projects—like when they helped install concrete floors in local houses.
“I think it’s necessary to step back and ask the local community, ‘Are we offering things that you value?’” says Aabo.
Through Waves for Development, past volunteers have been involved in projects ranging from the construction of a skate ramp and a surf shack to giving music lessons and photography classes and putting on educational movie nights. But how helpful is it, really, to teach someone how to surf or use a camera in an area struggling with things like generational poverty and insufficient health care?
When I put these questions to Aabo, he told me about Henry, a boy who started the program when he was 12 years old, and after taking photography lessons from a volunteer, Henry now is able to sell his images to traveling surfers while working for the organization as a volunteer coordinator.
“And the skills learned surfing can be applied to so many aspects of your life— building confidence and camaraderie between locals,” explains Aabo. “It’s a healthy outlet. We’re getting kids to think, ‘How can I get out there and surf more?’ rather than just sitting on the corner getting in trouble. In the end, I’d rather light one small candle than curse the darkness. Let’s do something. Let’s start something and see where it goes.”
Founder of Waves for Water and former pro surfer, Jon Rose, is quick to admit that he started his organization—which is now a large, international non-profit aimed at providing access to clean drinking water around the world—for seemingly selfish reasons: to have an excuse to travel back to Indonesia once or twice a year on tube-hunting trips.
“The idea of going out there and focusing only on volunteering, that speaks to an old, antiquated way of compartmentalizing our lives,” Rose told me recently over the phone. “And we do that naturally as humans—we go, ‘OK, this is where I work, this is where I have fun, this is where I help.’ My thing is, let’s just take the Etch-a-sketch and erase the whole thing and fuse passion with purpose.”
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, as Rose’s surf career was coming to an end, he began doing research on the lack of clean drinking water in many of the places he was visiting and discovered that he could easily bring water filters on his next surf trip—which he did.
“I bought 10 filters with my own money and went to Indo,” says Rose. “But before I got to the village I planned on going to, I was caught in a 7.2 earthquake in the city of Padang and I sort of became a first responder by accident. I ended up implementing those filters right then and there. I didn’t know what I was doing,
"I'd rather light one small candle than curse the darkness. Let's start something and see where it goes." - Dave Aabo
"The idea of going out there and focusing only on volunteering, that speaks to an old, antiquated way of compartmentalizing our lives" - Jon Rose
but I went into common-sense mode and just went for it. I came home from that experience a changed man.”
Two months later, on January 12, 2010, a 7.0 mega-earthquake shook Haiti to its core and left many without access to potable drinking water. “I thought I was going to go for two weeks and I ended up staying for two years,” says Rose. “Haiti is really where I built the organization and developed who we are, what we do and how we do it.”
Waves for Water has since responded to over 20 natural disasters and has partnered with companies like BMW, Paypal and even the U.S. Military and United Nations to implement large-scale programs that provide access to clean drinking water by distributing water filters, building wells and constructing rain harvesting systems in over 40 countries. But Rose believes the legacy of Waves for Water lies in its courier program, which supplies traveling surfers and backpackers with portable water filters to distribute in the places they visit.
“If we get to the point where millions of people are doing this, that’s a much larger scale than what we’re doing as a non-profit,” says Rose. “That would change statistics dramatically. The potential is there for, say, 10 or 15 years from now, it becomes second nature for travelers to be like, ‘OK, I need my passport, I need my toiletry bag, I need my filter,’ and it just becomes this standardized way of thinking for travelers. That’d be a game changer.”
Rose calls the courier program “DIY humanitarianism,” and has attracted traveling volunteers—including pro surfers like Rob Machado and Carissa Moore—to bring water filters to over 90 countries. The company estimates that over 7 million lives have been impacted because of their efforts.
“There’s a large percentage of the population not doing anything because they just feel like they have one vacation a year and they just want to surf,” says Rose. “Maybe they do care about the world and want to help, but they don’t want to spend five days building a house. This is a real good starting point for some people to make a significant difference without making much effort. Surfers inevitably travel to chase waves, so we’re poised to be this militia for good—this awesome, traveling group of positive warriors.”
According to Rose, chasing waves and giving back to the communities we visit aren’t competing priorities. In fact, they can coexist quite nicely. “Our tagline for the organization is ‘Do what you love and help along the way,’” he says. “It’s not, ‘Help and then do what you love.’ It’s really about going out there and serving yourself first.”
My time in the Dominican Republic felt both similar and different to surf trips I’ve taken in the past. We scored waves nearly every day, but instead of parking myself in a hammock and playing hours of card games between sessions, we spent our free time hanging out with the Mariposa girls, taking them surfing, teaching them how to get out of rip-currents and doing beach cleanups.
According to Mendoza, CTF is still a budding entity, but their purpose is to show other surfers how to give back in the right way while traveling. “Our entire goal has always been to be the antithesis of voluntourism,” says Mendoza. “For us, it’s about raising awareness about the people doing epic shit on the ground. We have to be really cautious when we go somewhere that we’re not being like, ‘Hey we’re heroes, we’re here to save your lives.’ That’s why we collaborate with the organizations that already have roots on the ground and are able to administer the programs. We’re not trying to save anyone’s life. Our hope is that maybe someone will say, “Where’s my next surf trip? Well, CTF has a program in Bocas, why don’t we go there?’”
On my last day of the trip, we visited the girls at the Mariposa center—an old, run-down private school that had been refurbished by the organization. In the middle of the courtyard sat a small swimming pool, surrounded by a row of classrooms. There was a garden maintained by the girls in the program and a half-built yoga deck being worked on by another group of visiting volunteers. Colorful murals and positive quotes from famous women covered the building’s façade.
I sat in a stuffy, white-walled room next to an oscillating fan with Katiana, one of the program’s eldest girls. Through an interpreter Katiana told me she’s 17 and has been in the program for almost a decade. She’s seen many volunteers throughout her time here, so I wondered what she thought about our visit that week.
She told me she enjoyed her time with the volunteers, and that she learned a lot about surfing and about the trash problem in her hometown—and that after watching us surf the bigger, punchy surf around the island that week, she now believed that she could do that one day, too.
A week of picking up trash and pushing girls into waves isn’t going to solve all the problems in a given community. But perhaps Aabo and Rose are right: maybe it is possible to simultaneously chase waves and do real good—even if that just means making a teenage girl feel more confident in herself. Surely, that’s better than just going surfing.
Surf-centric volunteer organizations aim to help coastal communities while scoring waves around the world. But can these groups actually effect meaningful change between sessions?
(Above) CTF co-founder Anna Santoro, giving a clinic on proper paddling technique and how to escape a rip current. Photo by JIANCA LAZARUS
(Above, left)Volunteering and surfing may seem like opposing ideas, but volunteers like Steve Kelty—pictured here with a local grom in Lobitos, Peru while participating in Waves for Development trip—believe surfers can strike a balance between the two during surf trips. Photo by HENRY ESPINOZA
(Above)This lengthy left-hand point is what initially drew Dave Aabo to the small town of Lobitos, Peru, which eventually became the birthplace of his non-profit, Waves for Development. Photo by RYAN STRUCK
(This page)Waves for Water founder Ron Rose, scoring fun waves and setting up a clean-water distribution center at a local medical center during a trip to Ecuador. Rose and his team also set up a series of filters at a rescue shelter for those who had been displaced by a 7.8 earthquake that hit the area back in 2016.Photos by DYLAN GORDON