Isn’t everyday you meet someone who dedicates their life to helping others, especially a surfer at the age of 24. But Emi Koch wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s brave, brilliant, beautiful, independent, idealistic, and humble almost to a fault. She was bold enough to start her own non-profit while she was a full time college student at Georgetown, and now almost 5 years later, she’s been creative enough to keep Beyond the Surface International going on a shoestring as well as a life for herself revolving around improving children’s lives across the world. After spending three weeks with her in India, I saw that her job isn’t easy, but it’s her labor of love. She sacrifices her own comforts–sleeping on floors, working odd jobs, overlooking material necessities, and spending long hours on the computer–in order to give back to the many kids that Emi serves and loves worldwide.
As a surfer who has spent more than my share of selfish hours waiting for the next wave to appear on the horizon, the sheer notion of Emi Koch is refreshing. Here is a surfer willing to give up some of that coveted water time to make riding waves possible for a whole lot of others who would be less than likely to ever do so. Her organization, Beyond the Surface International, is a platform for six coastal groups worldwide—like the Kovalam Surf Club that we visited in India—who are using surfing and ocean play as a medium for empowering underprivileged, at-risk kids in developing communities. Right now, BSI has platforms in Mexico, Peru, Chile, the Gaza Strip, India, and two in South Africa. Emi’s goal is to be able to raise funds and procure equipment for all these clubs, so that the people running the day-to-day activities in each region can focus their time on the kids…(although I’m certain the kids at each club wish Emi could be everywhere at once!)
…We pulled up to the Kovalam Surf Club one sunny morning to meet the kids Emi has been working with often in the last year. They leapt up the moment they saw her, dashing over and elbowing each other to be nearer to her. Her love for each of them was almost palpable; her good energy magnetic and therapeutic.
The place was abuzz with stoke, as 20 or more kids readied to head for the beach. They’d just moved into a new space and it was looking sweet. Old boards of all shapes and sizes lined the wall in racks, a faded row of rash guards covered another, and a few boards under repair lay drying outside in the. Jelle Rigole, the program’s founder and director, was removing a hunk of homemade surf wax out of a jar. We were probably thousands of miles from the nearest surf shop. Jelle had obviously learned to be resourceful.
The children that the Kovalam Surf Club & the Sebatian India Social Projects (an amazing local program that Jelle’s program works in conjunction with) serve live in extreme poverty—many of them malnourished, abused, homeless or worse. In the midst of so much suffering, the club provides them some much-needed respite. If the kids attend school, they are invited to go surfing in the afternoon and on weekends. It’s a deal that keeps all parties smiling. By motivating them to achieve an education, Jelle knows these kids will have a slightly better chance of survival later on. And don’t exclude new opportunities as surfers and ocean-savvy Indians in tourism developments, as well.
These are the long-term goals, but what I immediately felt while being with the kids on the club grounds and while pushing them into waves that day, was the Club as a safe-haven. It was a brief moment to forget about their hardships, and come together with friends to laugh, play, express themselves, and take on a new challenge in the sea. I witnessed kids helping each other in the water and sharing equipment so everyone had a turn. Boys who would hardly look at me at first, were getting rides all the way to the beach, looking back to make sure I saw them, and then running back out for more. The stoke of surfing transcended our differences, and we all became fast friends.
Some of the kids were absolutely ripping!? Jelle, Emi, and 8 or so of the boys who had been surfing longest sat outside catching sets and speeding down the lines of the fast beach break waves. I had tears in my eyes more than once. Jelle had created a safe space, full of hope and wonder for them in the world, and by teaming up with Emi, they hoped to be able to continue doing so for years to come. It was beautiful to behold.
One evening Emi and I lay under the fan in our hotel room chatting before we fell asleep.
“I don’t know, Liz.” She said. “I cannot say for certain that… yes… surfing will keep these kids out of jail or off the streets or away from drugs or otherwise, but one thing I know for certain is that if they do ever end up in a dark place years from now… I know they will look back and think about the waves they shared with their friends in a fun and safe and loving space and be able to say… yeah, that was a good day.”
I remembered wishing in that moment that there were more Emi’s on the Earth…
Emi, Jelle, and the leaders of all the other programs in the Beyond the Surface International platform are not just putting temporary smiles on these children’s faces. They are building futures and fostering loving relationships with the ocean, which will remain a lifelong refuge and friend for these beautiful, deserving souls.
I could go on and on about Emi because I adore and admire her beyond words…but for now, check out these links!
Donate to Beyond the Surface International