SurfAid Celebrates 10 Years Of Helping In The Mentawais

HT's or Lance's Right, the birthplace of SurfAid. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

HT's or Lance's Right, the birthplace of SurfAid. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to make it out to the Mentawais, you know it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and chalk full of perfect surf. It also happens to be one of the poorest places in the world, it’s citizens prone to disease and malnutrition. Below is a great write up about the formation of SurfAid, a group dedicated to providing basic medical services and education to the people of the Mentawais. For all the money the surf industry has made off these islands, it’s good to know that there are people out there giving back. Congrats to SurfAid on ten years of service, keep up the good work! Go to SurfAid to donate or become a member.—Justin Coté

People talk about a “life-changing” experience and Dr Dave Jenkins had a big one in October 1999 that was to radically change the course of his life. A Kiwi by birth, Dave had worked in New Zealand as a medical doctor before taking a job in Singapore as the educational director of a multinational health organization.

Being so close to the fabled Mentawai Islands, he decided to take the one-hour flight down to Padang and then board a charter boat for an overnight steam to the island chain 95 miles to the west.

“I distinctly remember the joy of that pre-holiday Friday afternoon feeling, throwing off my tie and collar and packing my board bag full of spare legropes, then heading to Singapore Airport full of mouth-watering anticipation of perfect Mentawai waves,” Dr Dave recalls.

A few days later, Dave was anchored at the legendary Lance’s Right (also known as HTs) next to Katiet village at the southern end of Sipora Island, when he decided to have a wander through the village after having a surf. When the chief found out he was a doctor, he asked him to come back to see some people. Dave returned with a small medical kit from the boat.

“When we turned up there were 200 people waiting for us,” Dave said. “We had quite an emotional afternoon coming to terms with the state of the health there, seeing desperate children who were sick. They had worms, were anemic, and had pot bellies from malnutrition.

SurfAid workers en route to a remote village in the Mentawais. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

SurfAid workers en route to a remote village in the Mentawais. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

“One woman with pneumonia was brought to me in a wheelbarrow. She died later that night. Whole families were wasting away from tuberculosis. I also found a graveyard full of two-to-three-foot graves, and I realized something was seriously wrong in what was seemingly a tropical paradise.”

Dave recalls the boat being “quiet, very quiet” that night.

“The juxtaposition of my extreme pleasure and the obvious suffering of the beautiful children haunted me and after running that crazy, sweaty, makeshift clinic in the afternoon I crashed back onto my air-conditioned bunk a perturbed man. I knew I could not sail away and forget those kids and an unusual and uncompromising resolve to turn this situation around took hold of my being.”

Dave, who was then 40, did a lot of soul searching. “I realized that helping these people would be a better journey for me than the one I was on. The thing that struck me was that most of these diseases were either treatable or easily preventable. It all came down to behavior and habits.

“I was irritated and saddened by the fact that here was a tropical paradise with wild spinach and other nourishing food growing, but there were all these malnourished kids.

While people like ourselves take a basic necessity, like running water, for granted, it's a big step forward for people in the Mentawais. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

While people like ourselves take a basic necessity, like running water, for granted, it's a big step forward for people in the Mentawais. Photo courtesy SurfAid.

It was crazy but I did find some hope. For one, we could show them agricultural skills and get them eating well. Well-nourished kids can fight off major killers such as chest infections and diarrhea. I had hope that we could turn this situation around.”

A few months later, Dave quit his high-paying Singapore job and headed back to his favourite Kiwi surfing town, Gisborne, where he laid out his now-obsessive thoughts to two of his surfing buddies, Dr Steve Hathaway and Phil Dreifuss. “It was not only because they were mates but because I knew they had most of the talent that I lacked and that if they said yes, SurfAid had a fighting chance.”

Within days they were diving for crayfish to entice the local surfing crew to a barbecue where they were sprung with the news that a quorum of 25 people was needed to sign up and pay $25 each to register as a legal non-profit in New Zealand.

“They signed, we paid, and SurfAid was born full of shared hopes and dreams and crazy, overly ambitious plans,” Dave said. SurfAid was officially incorporated as a non-profit organisation on 26 January 2000.

A fellow Kiwi, Andrew Griffiths, who was a chartered accountant, soon joined SurfAid as Managing Director and together they continued to knock on doors trying to raise funds to set up a health program in the Mentawai. They decided to start with a pilot malaria program in Taileleu village and bought some mosquito nets and moved out into the islands.

SurfAid International USA was incorporated in California in October 2002 as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) to share SurfAid’s mission of improving the health, wellbeing and self-reliance of people living in isolated regions connected to us through surfing. Today SurfAid USA is located in downtown Encinitas, California.

As Dave wrote in SurfAid’s first annual report in 2002: “Our core objective is to empower the Mentawai people with disease prevention skills and medical education. Compared to the relative simplicity of setting up a clinic and attending the ill, disease prevention is a more difficult path. However, it is the only path that sustainably reduces the levels of human suffering that dominate the lives of so many Mentawai people.”

Only two years later, in December 2004, SurfAid’s profile was lifted dramatically when the Boxing Day tsunami struck and the surfing industry – particularly Billabong, Quiksilver, Gravis and Analog – stepped up big-time to fund emergency relief teams to Nias and the islands north of the Mentawai.

Today SurfAid has worked in more than 300 villages in the Mentawai and Nias island chain and also more recently in Padang, the regional capital of West Sumatra, after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the city last September. The scope of SurfAid’s work has increased from malaria prevention to now include water and sanitation, disaster preparedness and relief, and community health programs.

In 2007, SurfAid was awarded the World Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (WANGO) Humanitarian Award, after being chosen from more than 49,000 not-for-profits worldwide.

“We have had incredible support from a range of individuals, the surfing industry, government aid organizations – AusAID, NZAID and USAID – and the United Nations. We thank everyone for their support and goodwill. They have all demanded a very high degree of professionalism, commitment and transparency and we are all the better for it,” Dr Dave said.

“SurfAid has always been about creating lasting change, not patch-ups which don’t work for long. Although we did not appreciate it at the time, one of the best things that happened at the beginning was our complete lack of money other than what we had ourselves and through endless volunteer days and small donations from our friends and families.

“This made us study what could be the best return to our donors and clearly the science was telling us to look at some of the basic behaviours that we take for granted – breastfeeding correctly, washing hands, feeding your child some fruit and vegetables, and sleeping under a mosquito net make a huge difference.”

SurfAid’s research shows that nearly one in 10 Mentawai children do not make it to the age of five. That is more than 15 times the death rate in developed countries where, on average, there are six deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Today Dr Dave is proud that SurfAid:

-Has distributed more than 60,000 specially treated mosquito nets and malaria education to more than 300 villages in some of the remotest areas in the world stretching along hundreds of miles of rough seas from northern Simeulue to the southern Mentawai

-Has expanded from the initial malaria program to encompass hygiene, sanitation, better nutrition, healthier pregnancy and birthing, improving immunization, and clean water projects

-Is always looking to engage communities to help themselves and build local capacity

-Has responded to four large emergencies, including the Asian Tsunami, despite never being established as an emergency response organization

-Has helped communities extensively prepare for emergencies through an award-winning program working with local communities, schools and government

-Has Indonesian nationals comprising more than 95 per cent of our program staff

-Has defined a uniquely positive example of responsible tourism and cross cultural partnership

-Is encouraging global citizenship through our schools program which is now in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. http://schools.surfaidinternational.org

As Dr Dave wrote in SurfAid’s first annual report back in 2002: “Compassion in action is an activity that assists people in need, but it is also a personal and practical opportunity to express your innermost human values while enjoying the pleasure of giving.

“In the course of establishing SurfAid, I have met a wide array of people and it always strikes me that those who give are also the most fulfilled. It is not always easy but it is, I believe, that simple.”

You can join in 2010 SurfAid events and learn more about our programs at www.surfaidinternational.org

Kirk Willcox
SurfAid International Communications Director
kirk@surfaidinternational.org