In 2011, Neil Christiansen was working in the pharmaceutical industry in San Diego, California, and doing quite well for himself. No one would have sensed his desire to pursue something more fulfilling. On an impulsive whim, he put every dollar he had towards a soon-to-be-non-profit.
He eventually found himself in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and met Henry and Margaret, owners of La Loma Jungle Lodge, a secluded jungle getaway. Both knowledgable of the community, and parents to a young child, Henry and Margaret had always thought to start a program for local preschoolers, but the opportunity was never there.
Christiansen's relationship with Henry and Margaret blossomed into a meaningful friendship, and eventually a partnership known as Give and Surf.
For the most part, Panama is a particularly high-income nation within Central-America. However, indigenous communities make up some of the most impoverished parts of the country. According to World Bank, indigenous people make up only eight per cent of the country's population, yet they account for up to 35 per cent of those living in conditions of extreme poverty.
Because of location and lack of education and medical care, The Ngoble-Bugle community, the largest indigenous group in Panama, is ranked the highest amoung those living in extreme poverty, with 82 percent living in less than satisfactory conditions. Through Give and Surf, Christiansen made it his goal to help communities like Ngoble-Bugle.
In Christiansen's commentary for The Inertia, Four Realizations From My Non-Profit in Panama, he notes that when he first started Give and Surf, he had big dreams and wanted to work all over the world to help others. But along the way he learned that bigger isn’t always better. “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,” Christiansen wrote.
Five years since the creation of Give and Surf, the organization now serves about 150 students located throughout five indigenous communities. They provide resources and support for preschool and kindergarten students, and assist with summer school and English classes. Give and Surf has also expanded their projects to help adults who wish to learn English.
By 2016, Give and Surf was able to help build a series of schools, a library, playgrounds, bathrooms, and water catchment systems. To make the school experience more unique for students, children can be transported to school by boat. Christiansen grew up with a love of the ocean. To share his passion for water and surfing, volunteers at Give and Surf also have the opportunity to experience riding waves, big or small.
Christiansen's time with Give and Surf has taught him that it wasn’t the people of Panama that needed him, but vice versa. “Old Neil thought these less fortunate strangers in the jungle needed him...Old Neil didn’t realize that in many ways, I needed them more,” he said. “The myth of this one-sided relationship between giver and receiver has faded now, opening my eyes to a more beautiful reality. Like a family, we need each other.”
Click here to learn more about Give and Surf, and how to donate.