It's not uncommon for surfers to travel the world chasing the best waves. But what is out of the ordinary is how members of Surf for Life pass the time when they're not out on the water. Instead of kicking back and relaxing, they spend their downtime helping build infrastructure for coastal communities.
California native Lissette Perez runs a hotel for surfers near El Cuco beach in El Salvador. She found out about Surf for Life - a grassroots organization which pairs travelers with vital projects in Central America - when a group of surfers from San Francisco stayed at her hotel.
Perez, who also runs a non-profit organization which helps improve educational opportunities in El Salvador, talked with them about her plans to build a high school. They volunteered to help.
A Surf for Life volunteer crafts a desk out of local guanacaste wood in El Cuco, El Salvador.
“They came down and spent almost two weeks," she says, "About 20 surfers came and worked, hands-on, and helped us finish the foundation and begin the walls on the project.”
The volunteers were members of Surf for Life, which is based in San Francisco. Financial planner and surfer Alex Fang co-founded it four years ago.
“My friend and I wanted to create an organization that would allow people to travel, but also focus energy towards creating something positive," Fang says.
Surf for Life organizes trips to surfing destinations, where surfers also work on infrastructure projects which promote education in the local communities.
“For us, that includes bridges, things that allow people to access schools, schools themselves, renovating schools so they’re usable or completing unfinished schools.”
Students in El Cuco, El Salvador, try out a bench and desk made by Surf for Life members Danny Hess and Jay Nelson.
Sierra Brasher, 32, joined the group three months ago. “We’re saying, 'Thank you so much for providing us with your waves and your beaches and as a treat for you, we’re going to build a school in your community because your community needs it.'”
Brasher just returned from a Surf for Life trip to Costa Rica.
“It was the most memorable week of my entire life," she says. "I got to co-lead a trip of 14 volunteers. We went to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. It’s in a jungle. It’s on this beautiful beach.”
Brasher and her group helped build a two-room elementary school.
“We had a total of 40 volunteers that traveled down there and the first group was laying the foundation," Brasher says. "Then the second group laid the tiles down and they finished the dry wall. Then our group grouted the tiles, cleaned up all the grout, and then we painted the entire interior and exterior of the two rooms.”
And that wasn't their only project. The group also helped build a soup kitchen which serves the BriBri, a local indigenous tribe there.
Computer security expert Ian Sharpe was one of the people on Brasher's team.
“I don’t think I ever sweat as much as I had when I was down there in Costa Rica," he says. "I think it was a combination of all of the manual work and then also the climate.”
Still, says Sharpe, it was a rewarding experience.
“You see the smile on the kids’ faces and you know you’re making a lasting impact in the community. At the last day the students all created some thank you cards and thanked us for all the hard work, for helping them build up the school.”
So far, Surf for Life has focused on Central American communities, but co-founder Fang plans to expand.
“We’re looking at potential projects and partnerships with a few other organizations in Japan, Africa and in South Asia," Fang says. "We’re looking at Bangladesh and trying to create a women’s center in one of the surfing villages out there.”
While Surf for Life members are building what local communities need, they are also changing perceptions about surfers. They are not interested only in riding the waves and having fun, they also care about the people who live near the beautiful beaches they love.