In the summer of 2007, two Bates College students were taking a surfing trip up the west coast of South America. After a day of waves Wiley Todd and best friend Jon Stueber were talking about some of the sights they’d seen.
“We took busses through Peru and Ecuador, where we knew there were really good waves,” said Todd of the initial adventure. “In these towns right on the ocean, all these kids that hang out on the ocean want to surf but weren’t in the water.”
It was over a refreshing round of beers later in that trip that Todd and Stueber talked about hypothetically creating a community center for these underprivileged kids that involved surfing.
“Surfing is an elite thing down there,” said Todd. “What kind of message do you think it sends to the children when they can do it too?”
Two years later, in 2009, in Valpariso, Chile, The Valpo Surf Project (the VSP) was set into motion by, Todd, Stueber and their friend and classmate, Henry Myer.
The VSP aims to help mentor kids in Chile by teaching English language classes, environmental consciousness and, of course, surfing in an after school program.
“Surfing is the cool buzz word that gets kids interested and keeps them involved,” said Stueber. “The heart of the program is mentorship. When you have a young person in their formative years the more time they can spend with a positive role model the better. The more impact that that adult or young adult is going to have on the kid, that’s by far the most important aspect of the program for me.”
Xenophobia is predominant in surfing. People don’t talk about where they surf and if you’re a newcomer to the scene you better be ready to stand your ground. These three young entrepreneurs have adapted this belief in a positive way. They are creating a local surfing culture that encourages community involvement and activism, giving the kids a lesson that goes well beyond the white water.
“I think surfing is a really valuable thing for a kid,” said Myer. “We wanted to add components to this thing to make it really worth while. That’s why we started packing on the English component and the environmental component.”
The students go on numerous surf outings in which they learn how to ride waves, but also learn good surf etiquette, basic ecology and wave generation. Beyond that, the VSP also includes English language classes and classes about “respecting” the waves. The VSP aims to help raise awareness about preserving the beach environment through beach cleanings as well as classroom sessions about greater environmental issues in Chile.
“The idea we are trying to spread is that the ocean is a great resource and can be a positive influence in anyone’s life, whether your dad’s a politician or a janitor,” said Todd.
These three surf fanatics, all 26, rotate their time in Chile so that one of the three is always on the ground with the kids. The other two will be back in the States doing whatever they can, be it bar tending, serving or landscaping, to make money to sustain their lifestyle for when they are in Chile. All three are a unique breed of surfer growing up in nontraditional surf spots. Stueber grew up in New Jersey, Myer in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Wiley in midcoast Maine.
Todd is the Director of Development and does a predominant amount of the fundraising travel up and down the coastal US.
Myer is the Director of Operations and spends most of his time making sure that everything is running smoothly in Chile. Myers spends his time networking and hanging out with the kids, from organizing daily activities to attempting to grow the program all year round to get enrollment up and more kids involved.
Stueber is the Director of Communications. He is responsible for the social media and public relations aspect. He also does fundraising events in New Jersey and New York.
How these three Bates graduates created the VSP was no easy task.
When the boys graduated in the spring of 2008 and the economy tanked they said screw it to trying to find a 9-to-5 job and decided to wait it out and surf down south.
“The economy was an influencing factor,” said Todd of their move back to Valpariso, Chile. “Also, being fresh out of college, that cliché time to be like, ‘yeah, let’s go do something sweet before we settle down, before biting the bullet and getting a job locked down.’ None of us are on that trajectory to date.”
In January of 2009, they headed down to Valpariso to set out to teach English but found there weren’t too many jobs to be had there either. A lack of English teaching jobs and headaches from running circles trying to acquire visas left them unfulfilled.
“We felt like we could do something cooler,” said Myer.
All these little mishaps lead them back to their community center idea from two years prior. They started talking to people in the community about the idea. “People down there seemed really receptive,” said Todd.
So for the first six months of 2009, the boys laid the framework for the project. Between catching waves and getting a feel for Valpariso, the boys were calling lawyers and meeting with different community leaders trying to figure out logistics. In June, they came back to the States and committed to start fundraising.
With most of the financial support coming from the United States but being spent in Chile, the boys were aware there would be some obstacles in creating an international organization.
“Basically, they told us, ‘This sounds like a cool idea, but we don’t know you guys,’” recalls Todd. “This is the number one way the cocaine cartels launder money. You are young white boys from the States trying to form a non profit, on paper, this looks really bad.”
The boys persisted. Filling out countless stacks of paperwork that, as in traditional bureaucratic fashion, took forever, especially in Chile recalled Todd. There were also governmental cultural barriers that arose from time to time, but the boys made it through and the VSP is now in its third successful year.
“My goal is to build the organization to be more sustainable,” said Todd of the future. “One of the things I’m doing right now is to build up some sort of endowment to not have the financial basis not be so hand-to-mouth.”
While the past three years have been a tough journey at times, especially in the realm of financing, all three say it’s been more than worth it.
Myer recalls the pride he felt when the VSP’s first student finished the program. “Jocelyn was 16 when she joined and didn’t know how to swim,” said Stueber. “Two year later, she is not only really in love with surfing, she is graduating and going on to university.”
“I think the most rewarding thing has been getting involved with not just the kids but with their families,” said Myer. “Having a real place in this really tight knit community. That and starting to surf with kids instead of teaching them to surf.”
For more information please visit The Valpo Surf Project.