ON A MISSION
Hawaiian surfer Kanoa Chung and local non-profit Surfing the Nations gives back while working on their cutbacks.
Story — Anna Harmon
Images — Janelle Cadamia (Portrait of Kanoa Chung — Bryce Johnson)
Kanoa Chung recalls being 6 years old and on the verge of tears, arms crossed in his family’s car at the beach, pissed because he didn’t want to surf – a tantrum he quickly regretted throwing when he realized he loved catching waves. Since pitching fits at a tender age, every board Chung has owned has been crafted by his dad, renowned Hawaiian-style big-wave surfer and board-shaper Terry Chung.
Fast forward about 20 years, and young Chung is a sponsored surfer and architect designer still living in the tropical paradise of the Garden Isle and taking surf trips whenever he can. Recently, he traveled to Mexico with fellow Kauai kid and pro-surfer Kahana Kalama and the crew of FuelTV show On Safari. They cruised down the Baja coast in a truck with coolers full of grub and a quiver brimming with boards, stopping along the way to surf Baja Malibu.
But heading to Mexico wasn’t for a “gringo comes for waves, buys all beer, cuts out” kind of trip. The crew was road tripping to New Creation, a drug and prostitution rehabilitation center for children outside of La Paz, and Gabriel House, an orphanage for kids with HIV/AIDS outside of Ensenada. Besides, of course, surfing the pristine Baja breaks, the main focus was to give back to the poverty-stricken area while sharing their love of surfing, with the help of Jedidiah, Peter-Miller Foundation and Surftech.
However, long before the FuelTV trip to Mexico, both Chung and Kalama put down roots in surfing-meets-service journeys with O‘ahu-based nonprofit Surfing the Nations.
“The way it works, there will be perfect waves to surf and a village that needs help right there,” says Chris Rehrer, a Cali-born, tow-headed 28 year old and STN’s international director. “There are all these surfers that go and don’t pay attention to the village, but this way you’ll surf the waves and then you’ll see the village and pay attention to the people who need help there.”
Surfing the Nations has been around for 14 years and is behind an eclectic mix of international mission trips and local projects run by surfers and those who just like the chill, conscious surfer vibe. In 2005, Chung joined them for a trip to the famed breaks of Indonesia.
Tom Bauer, 63, who founded the organization with his wife, grew up in the ’60s as a California surf bum big into longboarding (he surfed competitions and traveled as far as Mosambique for waves) and surrounded by “drugs, partying and self-centeredness.”
“And then he just had this moment where he said, ‘Hey, I didn’t choose to be a surfer, I was called to be a surfer. I don’t know why, but I was,’” said Rehrer. Bauer decided to share this inspiration with a concept, pitted against the “taking” he felt overwhelmed by, which became the slogan of Surfing the Nations: “Surfers giving back.”
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East (Israel and Egypt, where they hosted the nation’s first and second ever surf competitions, though they were unable to get permission to return this year) are the other locations where STN takes groups annually. This September was the seventh year they returned to Bangladesh, a country where half the population lives under the international poverty level of $1.25 per day and a traditional Islamic culture frowns on swimming and women ever being in the water.
But in Gum for my Boat, a 2009 documentary by Russell Brownley about one such trip, excited young girls paddle out, shirts and pants soaked with salt water.
The film documents Kalama’s STN trip and kicks off with the pro-surfer, lanky and tan, standing a head over solid masses of people in the city of Cox’s Bazar, known to tourists for its long stretches of sandy beach. It follows him and the crew as they pitch in surf time with kids from the Bangladesh Surf Club, which STN helped found in 2005.
While Kalama does the narrating, the film’s focal character is Jafar Alam, Bangladesh’s original surfer, whom Bauer met during his first visit in 2005. Alam now runs the surf club composed of over 70 girls and boys of all ages. “If a street boy doesn’t have a father, we’re his father,” says one of the members.
Alam also wrote the line that became the documentary’s title – in a follow-up email after meeting Bauer, he asked for “gum for his boat,” meaning wax for the board that he bought off an Aussie visitor in 1991 and taught himself to ride. Surfing the Nations also encouraged him to study English, which enabled him to start a business and travel with the group to their other destinations.
The Hawaii nonprofit performs random acts of kindness (they bought a tuktuk for a fisherman petrified by water after surviving Indonesia’s tsunami so he could support his family with a transportation company), but they also maintain relationships and projects at all four locations, holding annual surf competitions, donating boards and goods, and working with local organizations.
For Rehrer, the point is to empower locals, especially youth, however possible, and let them take it where they will. In Bangladesh, Alam and his club now host the Aloha Surf Competition themselves, and STN just comes to judge and support. Says Rehrer: “One of the biggest things that we’ve noticed about the entire world – Hawaii, California, Bangladesh – it’s just like you and I growing up. What do kids do when they get bored? They get into trouble. In a lot of places they don’t have the distractions that we have in America, like Playstations or whatever … So in all these other nations, kids get into a lot of different stuff. Drugs are really prevalent. And this happens at all these places that surfers travel to on normal bases just to go surf.”
Factoring into the “trouble” these kids get into is living in poverty. Without an outlet like surfing, something to give them direction like education (about one-third of Bangladesh’s kids don’t even go to primary school), or a place to go since families share cramped shacks, kids often find themselves hanging on the riskier side of the street involving drugs and crime.
Says Rehrer, “These kids have taken up surfing and jumped on it and that’s what they do now instead. Surfing helps them take their minds off their problems. They’ll be there when they get back, but for that moment they don’t have to think about it.” Surfing also transforms into a way to keep these kids out of trouble long-term, giving them direction and helping their families (in Bangladesh, they’re saving up to start a surfing lessons business for tourists).
STN works locally in Hawaii too. Every Wednesday, they head to the west side of O‘ahu, where they give swimming and surfing lessons to kids living in transitional housing. And every week, they feed 2,500 homeless or struggling people around the island.
In fact, the organization started with food distribution to struggling families in Kalihi in 1994. And when their original Kalihi property was sold, they moved to a sketchy, beaten-down area, the main strip of Wahiawa. There, they’ve been on a mission to clean up, buying out a liquor store, strip club, and porn shop, which they now use as a coffee shop, office, outreach hub, and housing for interns that show up throughout the year.
STN is founded with a Christian drive. While this can be alienating, Chung vouches that they’re not trying to push their religion on any of the people they spend time with. “Hanging with Surfing the Nations helped me refocus my view of missions work,” says Chung. “God's not some suit and tie pointing fingers, he's out there enjoying his creation with us, using our gifting and passion as a way of sharing his love on others.”
Since Indo in 2005, Chung has gone to Israel, Sumatra, and back to Bali with a similar mentality. And, of course, to Mexico.
On the FuelTV trip, Chung and Kalama used the Surftech longboards to get kids struggling with addictions to meth and alcohol out on waves. Says Chung, “We taught kids to surf who came from drug families and had been prostituted at a young age, who were around that area of influence. It was incredible, seeing the kids that were so psyched on just being able to surf and have fun.”
“The crazy thing is all the groms ripped. Everybody that tried to surf got to their feet. Over 20 kids ranging from 4 to 13 years old learned how to surf that day,” says Kalama.
They left the boards behind at New Creation.