11/28/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

How Surfing Led Me to Give Back


Fifteen years ago I was excitedly packing my surfboards, destined for my first trip to the Disneyland of surfing, the Mentawai Islands. At the time I was on a roll, a successful doctor, climbing the corporate ladder and saving to fulfill my dream of buying a yacht and sailing the world. But thanks to curiosity, things were about to change. Sitting on the boat after an absolutely perfect surf session, I was watching the kids on the beach and wondered how life was for the local people just 50 meters away.

So I wandered into the village and happened to pass the cemetery and noticed it was full of small graves, some very fresh. I began to ask questions and next thing I knew, I was running a clinic. Over one hundred people were waiting outside to see the first doctor to ever place his feet on their soil. What I encountered was to change my life and the lives of thousands of others over the next 15 years. I swapped my dream of sailing the world to help the loving mums and dads turn around this sad and preventable situation. That first night, I was faced with the sobering reality of people suffering, and in some cases dying from very preventable conditions -- like malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition. Conditions that could be cured by simple things like a malaria net or antibiotic.

With the critical help of a few mates, I started SurfAid. Founders like me are often a little single focused on their vision, always looking forward, but today I reflected back on what SurfAid has achieved since that first sweaty, makeshift clinic at the edge of the planet.

We were lucky to learn a few key lessons early on that still shape our philosophy, values and practical field strategies. We learnt that you don't help people by doing what they can and should do for themselves, given the chance and the education. We learnt that we need to listen to their values and their opinions, and to act as facilitators -- not with pre-conceived ideas about what WE believe is best for them, but rather how we can help them achieve what they believe is best for their community and culture. Through education of basic behaviours that we take for granted -- breastfeeding correctly, washing hands, feeding your child some fruit and vegetables, and sleeping under a mosquito net -- we are saving lives and making a huge difference.

Some key recent results are building 396 new, and rehabilitating 28, clean water facilities in 77 remote communities; establishing 35 community health posts focusing on mother and child health; and reaching 24,000 people in Nias, the Mentawai and Aceh with our Disaster Risk Reduction program. Our shared determination to measure results, learn and improve has held our team together throughout the turbulence of having no money and almost shutting down. We successfully tripled in size as we morphed into a disaster response and preparedness organization; we expanded both our business and fundraising units to three countries and our field work to four distinct cultures in different island groups -- the Mentawai, Nias, Sumba and Sumbawa. What I am most proud of is our stubborn determination against the odds of location, timing, and the self-centered nature of our modern humanity. And the way we, as a team of mates, have lived true to our values and built an organization that remains passionate, resilient and focused on real and measurable results for our friends and hosts in remote surfing zones. I'm honored with the way the surfing community, and non-surfing supporters, give back to the world that gives us so much. The future is bright.

To learn more about SurfAid, please visit here.

This post is part of a series produced in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2014) on December 2. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. The Huffington Post will feature posts on #GivingTuesday all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.

And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post to