Lead image: ESL student Abdiel in one of Give and Surf’s classrooms in Bocas del Toro, Panama. ©Give and Surf
Give and Surf is a small, locally embedded nonprofit offering preschool, kindergarten, summer school and English classes in five indigenous communities in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Emily Tarantino recently spoke with journalist and editor Sabine Bergmann about falling in love with Panama, stumbling upon a flyer for volunteers, and taking the leap to move to Bocas to become Give and Surf’s Executive Director.
SB: I’m glad we get to talk today.
ET: Me too! I’m actually in Panama City right now. It’s culture shock coming into the big city, and just the traffic and concrete is overwhelming now that I’m used to living on a small island.
SB: Yes, the communities Give and Surf works with are quite small, right?
ET: So, in the archipelago of Bocas we work with the Ngöbe population — which is the largest indigenous tribe of Panama — and in the villages, there are maybe 125 to a few hundred people.
SB: Wow. That is small.
ET: It is! A lot of the villages we’ve worked in only had one or two teachers teaching grades one to six before we got there. In Panama, the Ministry of Education provides free public education from pre-school through high school. And those services are readily available in bigger towns and communities, but in the villages resources are much more limited.
SB: So there’s a gap between theory and practice?
ET: Right. And the kids could go to the bigger towns, but one of the biggest challenges is transportation. A lot of these families travel by cayuco — a hollowed out canoe — and so it might be a several hour paddle ride for them. So Give and Surf tries to complement what’s offered by the Ministry of Education: we do a lot of work in preschool and kindergarten, and then we do continuing education scholarships to encourage kids to stay through the end of high school and even now into University.
It started with Neil Christensen, our founder, as the only teacher, living in the jungle, studying Spanish by headlamp, and starting the organization, and then as more funding and volunteers came to support the work, it’s just continued to grow every year.
SB: It has, and you jumped on board several years ago. How did that come about?
ET: Almost exactly five years ago, I came to Panama and to Bocas del Toro on vacation with friends. And just loved it; I loved the culture, the people, just everything about it. It was absolutely stunning. And I was on vacation, so I was seeing beautiful beaches and snorkeling, but something really just gelled with me about the vibe of Panama.
I came back a few years later, alone, and I was back in Bocas because I loved it, and loved Panama. And the owners of the place I happened to be staying at had a strong connection with Neil. They had a flyer up for Give and Surf, and I was able to arrange to go out for a few days to help with the pre-school kids. It was totally random.
SB: Wait a minute: you happen to see a flyer in a lodge a few years ago, and now you’re the Executive Director?
ET: Yes! And the thing is, if you were a tourist in Bocas you would never normally see these communities, because the tourism side just includes the beaches and the hotels and restaurants and nightlife. It offered me the opportunity to see a different side of Panama.
SB: I imagine that it’s much different than where you were coming from.
ET: So, I was working with childcare programs in Massachusetts at the time and was constantly dealing with regulations and liabilities, with headaches like, “Your mulch isn’t deep enough on your playground,” and “Your rails on your stairwell are too far apart.”
Then I’m in this small boat, picking up three and four years olds who are on broken-down docks, with no parents in sight. They don’t know how to swim, and they’re trusting foreigners in this boat to come pick them up, take them to school and then drop them back off every day. Just the shock between these two realities! Not that either one was right or wrong: it’s just a different way of being in the world. But there was such a difference between our worlds.
We have a boat that picks up kids every day, and that’s still the best part: You go out on a boat in this different world, and you pull up at a dock, and you just shout “¡Escolita!” — which is what we call pre-school — and out of the jungle of the mangroves come running these little kids, in their best outfits, with their hair done up. They’re just so excited to come and engage with their peers and be part of the program. It’s a great feeling, and that hasn’t changed in the three and a half years since my first day of volunteering.
SB: So how did you go from that first volunteer experience to being on staff?
ET: As soon as I got back from that trip, I wrote to Neil, and I said, “I had an awesome experience. What a great thing you’re doing. How can I help?”
I was able to help remotely at first, and officially took the leap and moved down full time at the end of 2014.
SB: Were you terrified when you bought the tickets?
ET: No, I was so ready! Neil and I had worked so closely together. Both of us had the idea that we could grow it together. Plus I had gone down several times at that point, and every time I was on a plane ride down to Panama, it felt like I was going home. I hadn’t ever felt that traveling anywhere else. My friends and family were like, “You have to go! We’re sick of hearing about Panama: make the move. You’re ready.”
SB: What is it about Panama that enchants you so?
ET: Well, it’s very diverse. You have Panama City, which they call the new Miami: it’s a thriving metropolis with skyscrapers and about half the population of the country. But then, just outside of the city you have these mountain communities and coffee plantations: they’re peaceful and more remote. And there’s the Atlantic and the Pacific, so you have lots of ocean communities. And Bocas is really unique because it’s on the Caribbean side, and you have this blend between the Panamanian culture and the Caribbean culture and lifestyle. So you have a very easy, laid-back, diverse, friendly population.
And it’s really interesting too, because there’s a huge dichotomy: You have this growing tourism sector that’s really taken off in the last ten to fifteen years, of surfers and backpackers and beachgoers, but you go less than 15 minutes by water taxi to these indigenous villages where they’re living without access to education or medical care. That’s where you can really make an impact.
SB: What excites you most about what you do?
ET: My favorite piece of my job right now is going into new communities and building relationships. The first thing Neil taught me when I got down here was: under-promise, over-deliver. So when we come into a new community, usually the mayor or one of his representatives goes with me, and they say, “If Give and Surf says they’re going to do something, they’re going to come through on it. In exchange, the community has to be on board.”
I visited one place a few months ago, and 80 parents showed up and shared their vision about what they want for their kids and for themselves. These villages don’t have electricity or running water, but people still have the vision to want their kids to be able to go to college, to want computers and information technology because they understand that that opens windows. They still have that dream of how they can improve their kids’ lives.
SB: What’s difficult about what you do?
ET: It was an adjustment going to island pace. I faced a lot challenges at first, but it’s all about learning from those. For instance, in the first six months that I was down there, we started construction on a new school, and we had a contractor from a different community that we brought in. Within two weeks, the local community fired him, because they didn’t want to work with him, and decided they were going to do it themselves. But they didn’t really have construction experience, which is tough when you’re moving yards and yards of rock between islands by hand! We did it, but it was really frustrating. Now when we go into a community, we have them pick their own contractor.
SB: I bet you do! Do you still work in that first community you volunteered in?
ET: Yes, Bahia Honda is one of the two main communities we work with, and we’re there every day. There are about 250 people in the community and we have about 16-20 in the preschool on a daily basis.
SB: Now I know why you get culture shock in Panama City! It must be incredible working somewhere where it’s small enough that everyone knows who you are.
ET: And vice versa. I’m usually out there at least once every couple of weeks. I was there last Wednesday. I know every kid’s name. It’s my favorite thing, going to the pre-school, and instantly five kids are in my lap wanting to read a book. It’s just a great feeling.
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