Give & Surf: Changing Children’s Lives in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Photo Courtesy: Give & Surf

By Sophia Chiang, Swimming World College Intern

In 2010, Neil Christiansen packed up his life in San Diego and decided to move to a slice of remote Panama to found his own non-profit organization known as Give & Surf to educate and develop a local communities in the Bocas del Toro province.

Five years down the road, Christiansen can say he’s done just that. Give & Surf is a successful 501(c)3 non-profit organization that now serves a population of five hundred Ngobe community members living in the communities of Bahia Roja, Bahia Honda, and Solarte. These Ngobe communities still live without electricity, running water, clean drinking water, or bathroom facilities, but Give & Surf has been able to provide education to over a hundred children of the community ages three to sixteen. They now run a preschool, a kindergarten, a surf outreach mentorship program, an after school program, adult and elementary school English programs, a music program, and various community development initiatives. Recently, they opened a new community center. And, for the people at Give & Surf, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what they hope to achieve.

Give & Surf operates in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, on the beautiful Caribbean Sea. Palm trees, clear water, beautiful beaches, and nice weather come with the territory. The Ngobe people depend on the Caribbean for their livelihoods and to access the outside world. But dependency on the ocean can be a dangerous thing, especially for the Ngobe, who have no swim training. They put themselves at especially high risk because they paddle in dugout canoes, as they are unable to afford motorized boats. Horror stories, such as fathers falling out of their canoes in perfectly calm water and drowning, or sons and daughters who fall off docks and are never seen again, are a common reoccurrence in these communities.

Thats where Give & Surf hopes to come in. This summer, they’ll be launching a new initiative to teach the Ngobe how to swim in hopes of ending drowning in these communities. How do I know? I’m the one who’ll be running it.


Photo Courtesy: Give & Surf

Where did it begin?

When I brought the idea of writing about Give & Surf to Swimming World and was given the option of writing about my program myself, I was quite uncertain about the idea. After all, it would be a sort of quasi interview with myself. But I’ve come to realize that it’s actually more important than anything else to actually write about why I’m doing what I’m doing to help myself understand my own motivations and to help others realize why I believe what I’m doing is so important.

I’m always looking for ways to give back to the sport that has given me everything. Sounds cheesy, but true. Swimming is everything to me. I am who I am today because of the sport.

But swimming, for us, is just that: a sport. We race to win. We haven’t had to worry about drowning since we were two years old. We’ve just known how to swim after growing up with siblings or parents in the sport, getting sent to lessons before we could walk, and spending summers at the pool club. That’s a privilege we don’t realize how much we take for granted.

Growing up by the ocean and spending my summers beach lifeguarding, also I know how dangerous the ocean can be. There’s days that don’t look rough but there’s mean rip currents. There’s days where the water is completely calm but people still drown. The ocean’s completely unpredictable, and there’s days where it absolutely frightens me. That sentiment comes from the perspective of someone who has been a lifetime swimmer and a professional lifeguard. I can’t even imagine how terrifying it can be for people who are so dependent on the ocean, yet don’t understand it nor know what to do when they’re caught in it.

So when I came to Give & Surf with a proposal for an internship, the idea of developing a swimming program fit for the specific set of conditions the Ngobe people experience on a daily basis seemed natural to me. It’s something I’m well equipped to develop from experience, and with the help of the many people I was able to talk with experience in developing programs such as these, the plan quickly came to fruition.

How are we going about implementing it?

This summer is going to be our test run. Right now, I’m working with some rough sketches that have been supplied to me courtesy of John Waldman at Fluid Mechanics, Inc., a stroke and swimming company that works with world class athletes, to apply some aspects of their program to our own program development. We’re tweaking things to work towards our targeted age group (kids, specifically girls, ages four to ten) still, but we’re going to try to put it into motion through volunteer training and classes this summer to make sure it’s sustainable. Because of Give & Surf’s amazing local community connections, we’re going to be able to work with the kids currently enrolled in their other programs, and give them swimming as an extracurricular activity that will help improve their everyday quality of life.

What are our objectives?

Our goal is to make sure all the kids ages four to ten in the communities Give & Surf works with are able to swim. We are specifically focusing on girls, because they tend to be the most vulnerable in this aspect (some boys have learned rudimentary swimming through fishing or surfing already), but we are hoping to make sure all kids hit a minimum level of swimming ability. Our objective, essentially, is to end drowning in these communities.

What’s new about this program?

Aside from the local people never having access to swimming lessons until now, we’re also approaching swimming lessons from a different way than, say, your local swim club. We’re not focusing on technique or highly stylized swimming. Instead, we’re grappling the basics. We’re working on techniques to make sure kids don’t panic in drowning scenarios. We’re going to teach them how to swim effectively in the ocean. We’re going to teach them how to respect the ocean. We’re going to make sure they survive.


Photo Courtesy: Give & Surf

What are we most concerned with in this program?

Sustainability. We want this program to last in order to make sure we can consistently provide swimming lessons to the children of these communities in order to make our impact last. I’ve volunteered for projects in the past that have focused on short term goals and ignored the long term, and, in turn, actually failed to meet their objectives because they didn’t focus on being sustainable. We’re looking into ways to make sure we can keep running this program for a long time to come, including educating permanent in-country project management staff and developing methods to train volunteers effectively.

What do we need to achieve these objectives?

We need skills-based volunteers. We need people who love the sport and want to use their skills to impact the lives of others. We want people who want to get involved. No teaching or swim coaching experience is required; as long as you are a strong swimmer and are willing to learn, we will have all the tools for you to be successful with us. If you’re interested in volunteering with us, you can apply at the Give & Surf website here. If you have more questions about the program, you can contact me directly through e-mail (click on this link or e-mail the address I’ve attached at the bottom of this post).

Secondly, we’re looking to fundraise or gain sponsorships in order to acquire the equipment to run a program like this. We’re looking for swimming equipment, from swimsuits to caps and goggles as well as lifesaving equipment such as life jackets and emergency rafts. Most girls actually don’t have swimsuits of their own, so it’s a cost we need to seriously look into providing.

What can you do?

The simplest answer? You can get involved. You can set up a fundraising campaign and get your friends to donate, or you could apply to volunteer with us and help us grow our program, bit by bit. Or you could share this article in a Facebook post, or in a Tweet. You could regram one of our Instagram photos. You could give us a like on Facebook. You could tell your swim team about us and organize a trip down to Panama. You could donate some of your Christmas money. Whatever you do, we’re thankful for it, because you’re helping us impact people with every little action you take.

Got swimming skills and interested in working with Give & Surf this summer? We’re looking for you! Apply to volunteer at the Give & Surf website here or send Sophia an e-mail directly at If you’re interesting in donating or sponsoring the project you can also send Sophia an e-mail for more ways to give to Give & Surf.

Update: The link for direct project donations is now live.

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