Surf. Yoga. Charity. If there was ever the trifecta of good karma, Santa Monica local Monique Evans may have hit the mark when she founded SYRV, a non-profit outfit that organizes trips to the Jiquilillo & San Juan Del Sur regions of Nicaragua, where surfing, yoga, and community involvement form the itinerary.
The typical SYRV trip spans one week where participants surf, do yoga, and go on local excursions. What defines these trips however is that the afternoons are set aside for getting involved in the local community. These activities can range from building water purifiers, feeding families that live at a dump yard, teaching local kids how to surf, teaching the community how to speak English, and most importantly getting involved in significant infrastructure projects.
Barely a year into operation, SYRV has already garnered the attention of some big names in the sporting goods industry. In addition to the generous support from the Santa Monica community, companies including Adidas, RVCA, LSpace, Sanuk, and Easton Sports all donated a combined 750 pounds of clothing, shoes, sports equipment, and food totaling $25,000. They also raised the needed $1,500 to purchase a water purifier, filters, and the building materials used for an eco friendly water shelter designed by local Venice, California, LEED certified architect, Lara Hoad.
Looking beyond the epic surf and pristine beaches, Nicaragua is a country in dire straits. Much of the Central American country’s infrastructure was destroyed in the 1980s amid the conflict between the U.S.-backed Contras and the elected government of the Sandinistas. Still recovering from a U.S. embargo lasting five years, the country now ranks as the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 48% of the population lives below the poverty line with 80% living on less than $2 per day.
As such, Monique came up with a way to harness the power of tourism to benefit local communities in Nicaragua. Tribal Surf had the pleasure of speaking with Monique and learning more about her and what brought about SYRV. She also shares some insight into what’s being planned for the upcoming SYRV trips in August as well as what’s in store for SYRV in the future.
Ulupono Surf (US): We grew up surfing the same Santa Monica beaches and absorbing the culture of the West Los Angeles lifestyle. How has that affected your current values?
Monique Evans (ME): I grew up in a modest, middle class, and mellow beach town. As you know, it isn’t quite the same as it used to be. The population has significantly increased and that small beach town feel has dissipated a bit. That said, there is a solid community here striving to make it a better place for us all to live. Every day, individuals and communities are becoming more conscious about health, environmental issues, and spirituality. For me, traveling has been a constant reminder to appreciate the simple things in life, not to take so much for granted and to share what we learn along the way. I think this brings us all closer together and builds common ground for us to be more connected in a busy world.
SYRV was a simple concept: to have a small group of people experience a beautiful country and culture while giving back to a welcoming community that have significantly less than we do.
US: Ironically, SYRV is a byproduct of the lousy economic conditions we’ve been in. Most people would have just waited out the storm. You on the other hand decided to turn lemons into lemonade and launch SYRV. Were you apprehensive at all?
ME: Actually, there was no apprehension at all since I was simply looking for something purposeful and productive to do with my time after losing my job in the travel industry last year. I made a decision to volunteer and consult while insuring that I was aligning my efforts with like-minded people and utilizing my past experience in the youth marketing and travel industries.
SYRV was a simple concept: to have a small group of people experience a beautiful country and culture while giving back to a welcoming community that have significantly less than we do. There wasn’t a business model set up since it was purely experiential and what I thought was going to be a once in a lifetime trip.
The response was so amazing whereby people really reached out and wanted to be a part of this. SYRV is still run in small groups (12 to 15 people) but we have taken on larger initiatives to help the community such as providing clean water and electricity for the schools.
Before, during, and after each trip we speak with the travelers about what they feel is needed and what SYRV should embark on next. We already have return volunteer travelers and people who donated on a previous trip are now coming to see how their money is helping the local communities and getting more involved.
US: What gave you the idea to combine surfing, yoga, and charity?
ME: So often we travel to gorgeous destinations and while we are contributing to a local economy, we aren’t always seeing the needs of a whole other social class in the host country. Or you do see it and feel helpless to make a difference while you are visiting for such a short amount of time. I think volunteering and helping people is innate in all of us. People genuinely want to help others less fortunate; they just need to be shown how and be given an opportunity that makes sense to their own lifestyle. Not everyone can take two weeks off or afford to participate in a $3,000 program which is how most volunteer programs are structured.
As for bringing in surfing and yoga; so many people in the beach community surf or want to learn, it’s definitely a lifestyle and sport. Practicing yoga is a lifestyle and a sort of individual “sport,” if you may. Both activities are very complimentary to one another, on an individual level and on a personal development level. I think when you combine these activities with the volunteering aspect something magical happens for the participants that really expands them. Everything on the trip is optional so travelers feel a sense of freedom to decide what they want to do and where they would like to spend their time. Some surf more, some volunteer more, some do it all.
US: Why Jiquilillo and San Juan del Sur?
ME: A good friend of mine from Canada had opened a surf school in Jiquilillo, Nicaragua, and flew me out for a consulting job. The personal commitments and contributions he and his partner made to this rural community were quite inspiring and it gave me an opportunity to help on an ongoing basis. Since then, SYRV has initiated its own programs with our traveler’s help and expertise. We created the school water purification program and will be adding electricity to the schools, donating computers, and teaching the kids about clean ocean and beach principles. This has been a combined effort and everyone has walked away knowing that no matter how small the contribution, it goes extremely far in developing countries.
US: Your latest trip was a huge success by any measure with some very generous individuals and popular names in surfing making considerable donations. How did that come about?
ME: We (myself and the travelers) reached out to people we knew and let them know what our goals were. We explained the current conditions (like people having to take a two hour bus ride to get clean water or drinking contaminated well water) and people started to donate. In addition to raising the cash needed to purchase the purifier and filters, we needed to buy materials and hire local labor to build a shelter to store the purifier.
We also accepted clothing, sports equipment, school supplies, hygiene products, and other donations. Don’t get me wrong, as anyone who has done it knows, fundraising can be very time consuming, but the inspiration and encouragement from our contributors is priceless.
I’m really moved by it. We would like to reach out more this summer as we are establishing new programs in Nicaragua.
US: I particularly love the story of how someone donated a surfboard to a local gremmie that was otherwise surfing on a freezer door.
ME: His name is Carlos Montenegro, he’s 14 years old, son of a native and local resident of Jiquilillo. His mother left the country to Costa Rica looking for better opportunities leaving him and his three sisters behind in the care of his father who works as a security guard taking care of other people’s properties. He goes to the local school where he is in the third grade. He was surfing on this refrigerator door when I was there in March and a traveler from San Diego offered him his board and he ripped. The camp let him borrow their boards and then one of SYRV’s travelers from Malibu donated a board to Carlos on our last trip in May. He has since surfed every day.
US: The activities participants engage in can be tailored to their specific interests or skill sets. What are some of the sorts of things people have participated in that was tailored to specifically for them?
ME: We discuss what is most needed in the community and what we can specifically bring to the table. The water purification system was something that I personally was passionate about. There were plans to build some sort of filtering system in the village but it would have likely taken years particularly given all the red tape. I felt it was necessary to do something NOW. Even if we couldn’t help the entire village at once we were going to do it school by school providing over 25,000 gallons of clean water at a time.
We had an architect design the shelter so that it could actually collect the rain water and reuse it by storing it in a reservoir. The surfers taught the kids at the local school how to surf, all of whom were up on the boards their first and second times out. We have a traveler who is donating three computers, but there isn’t electricity in the schools so we are having it installed before we get there and then we’ll hook them up, teach the students how to use them and install English teaching software.
As a volunteer for Surfrider Foundation I’m having a presentation about clean beaches and oceans translated to Spanish and our Spanish speaking volunteer travelers will give these presentations to the kids in the schools.
One of the coolest projects we have going is an eco tree house from 02Sustainable. It will be built on Monty’s (Surf School) property and 100% of the proceeds from guests staying in the tree house will go to sustaining SYRV’s projects in the community. This includes water filter replacement, monthly electricity bills at the school, as well as other necessities.
US: Nicaragua is a very popular surf destination. What sorts of waves can people expect? Does SYRV provide instructors or guides?
ME: In Jiquilillo you have a great beginner beach break in front and lessons are also available. For more advanced surfers, we take them 20 minutes away to Chancletas as well as a couple secret spots further north. Then we head to San Juan del Sur and the choices are endless with Madera’s, Hermosa’s, Manzinillos, and Colorado’s. We also organize a boat trips for those who want to venture out.
US: Tell us a little bit about the Yoga performed during these trips and who the instructors are.
ME: On our August 5th trip, Jay Co from Power Yoga and The Hub in Santa Monica, will be hosting and teaching vinyasa/”power” yoga. On the August 19th trip, Larry Thraen (who moved from Santa Monica to Nicaragua three years ago) will also be teaching vinyasa yoga.
In addition to the yoga, we offer massages on all the trips, Yuen Method (energetic medicine) and Reiki sessions. Most of these modalities are offered complimentary to the locals in the community and included in the travelers trip (see trip package for details).
US: Is there anything people should consider before participating in these trips?
ME: Consider having an amazing cultural and expanding experience within one week. You’ll feel like you were away from home far longer. We outlined some of the volunteer projects earlier. Every activity is optional, and you decide what you want to do and when. You’re not tied to a group except for when we transfer from Northern Nicaragua to Southern.
The trip includes your accommodations, transfers, yoga and wellness program and most meals. It also includes surf lessons and board rental in Jiquilillo. Prices start at $800 for shared accommodation. We truly aim to keep the cost down so travelers can afford the experience.
US: SYRV is applying for non-profit status this summer. In the interim, you’ve partnered with Proyecto Laguna a renowned Nicaraguan activist organization. What else is in store for SYRV?
ME: Project Lagoon is focused on Nicaragua development and education. Through Project Lagoon’s 501(c)(3) status we are now able to offer 100% tax deduction for all donations and a portion of the travel expenses.
We will continue to have the Nicaragua program and build upon our projects in the Jiquilillo and Chinandega areas but there are definitely opportunities to expand. We are currently looking at adding a few more destinations including South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand for trips in 2010.
US: Thank you for doing what you’re doing, Monique. What you’ve created not only allows people to experience a renowned surfing destination, but to do so responsibly.
ME: I really want to thank our hosts in Nicaragua and the travelers who join us on these trips. What they share with the community is priceless and inspiring. As long as we continue to share our knowledge I believe we will see growth and change.
Visit SYRV to find out more about participating in the upcoming trips scheduled for August 5-12 and August 19-26. Learn more about the activities in store, the types of lodging available, as well as how you can help the communities of Jiquilillo, Chinandega, and San Juan del Sur.