Surfing for Peace

May 21, 2012 – Emi Koch (C’12) is breaking the stereotype of surfers as beach bums. Her nonprofit organization combines her passion for surfing with humanitarian work.

Koch, a psychology major, never envisioned herself in college. As a teenager, she wanted to be a professional surfer. Despite competing in surfing competitions, earning corporate sponsorships, and modeling, she felt that something was lacking in her life. The San Diego native opted to try something new and enrolled in university. After a year, however, she decided to take a break from academia to reassess where her life was heading.

“It was a strange process that I went through to realize what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. She moved to Nepal to volunteer, teaching child refugees in a monastery. “It sounds cliché, but I was exploring who I was and what I wanted to do,” she said.

In a twist of fate, it was in Nepal that she learned about professional skateboarders who were using skateboarding to help kids in Afghanistan. “When I heard about them, I just thought, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what I want to do, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” She continued, “It was how I [could] reconcile my passions.”

After returning from Nepal, she started Beyond the Surface, International, a nonprofit organization devoted to using surfing as a tool to “strengthen and even create communities and promote social justice and peace.” She received funding from local businesses and major corporations like Billabong. As she worked to develop her nonprofit, Koch realized that she would need a college degree in order to pursue a career in humanitarian work. She decided to return to school, but this time to Georgetown.

In her three years on the Hilltop, she has continued to expand Beyond the Surface, which partners with three separate nonprofit organizations based in South Africa, Peru, and India. Each program has a similar agenda: to use surfing as a way to help children in the community. These similar missions meant that businesses had to choose where to send donations. Koch’s role has been to help funnel money more effectively toward these nonprofits. “It works kind of like an hourglass, where we’re in the middle. I had this idea that I could go to companies and represent [these nonprofits]. Then I would distribute [funds], covering more bases,” she explained.

Organizations like Beyond the Surface have grown as the surfing industry has become more socially aware. “It was the right time I think, where people were beginning to realize just how much surfing was impacting communities where surf tourism happens,” she continued. “Right now there’s this idea of ‘surf slums,’ where people basically stay in charter boats outside the surf line.” According to Koch, the waves are like any other resource in a community’s economy.

She believes that underprivileged children can benefit the most from local waves. “I think it’s more [about] a sense of empowerment. I don’t think it’s just about surfing,” she said. “Surfing is a tool that people can use, like a channel.” For children, the programs give them a chance to work out difficulties in their lives. “They’re in the channel, figuring it out, but in the process they’re staying in school and getting off drugs.”

The support she has received from donors shows that many others believe the same. “This whole idea about using sport to empower kids, basically using something that you love to do good, was kind of new to the industry, and people wanted to jump at it,” she said. “I just came in at a good time.”

After graduation, Koch will start a fellowship on sport and peace work, sponsored by the Dekeyser & Friends Foundation. Koch will spend two months in Hamburg, Germany, training with humanitarians, athletes, and nonprofit professionals before moving to Liberia, which is rebuilding after two civil wars. Partnering with the Surf Resource Network, Koch will work in Robertsport, Liberia. While the city of Robertsport focuses on gaining sustainable surf tourism certification, Koch plans to create a youth program that is directed at the needs of its residents. “There are standard sports for development and peace curriculums that the three surf programs I work with now have tailored to fit their communities’ needs, and I like to do the same,” she explained.

Koch is surprised at her life’s journey so far, but could not be more excited to see where it will lead. “It’s all worked out because I found what I wanted to do and what I love,” she said. “And it’s all just come together.”

—Elizabeth Wilson