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Friday, February 22, 2013
WOO way

By Jon Coen

Surf travel.

It's a phrase unto itself. To move is a part of our very lifestyle. There are people who are passionate about baseball or fashion, and I am sure they travel to other ballparks in other cities and visit boutiques on vacation. But it's not what prompts them to load vans and get on planes for far reaches of the world. And with surfing, it's not only acceptable to get outside one's comfort zone, it's part of the objective. There's something inherent about surf travel that weaves us into the landscape.

We all like to think of ourselves as giving to a place in the world that has given us so much. Putting our money into economies, especially in the developing world, is one way to do that.

And then there are groups like Project Wave of Optimism (Project WOO), which aims to channel the benefits of international travel to the locals with a focus on community projects. It was founded by a Peace Corps volunteer on a surf trip to make sure that surfers are having a positive effect on coastal areas they visit rather than being a detriment to them.

"In order for community development to be successful, it must be identified, driven and owned by the local community. What the face of development thinks is best for the community oftentimes is not prioritized by the people themselves. The recognition of the difference of perspectives is fundamental to the success of our work," explains program director Bo Fox.

Most surfers like to pitch in. We've all picked up hitchhiking natives, intentionally overpaid for trinkets from local kids and maybe helped get a truck across a river. Project WOO helps to facilitate good vibes.

They have three simple objectives: to improve (not radically change) the locals' way of life, bridge the local and international communities and promote sustainable tourism practices.

Fox and crew have spent the last six years on a school bus project, launching community study programs and seeing out the all-important surf-leadership program, where they provide boards that are shared by communities. Most of this has been done in Nicaragua, Costa Rica's poorer yet less defiled neighbor. And as a result, kids are staying in school, people have better transportation and locals are learning how to see tourism as an opportunity and keep it in check to ensure that it continues to provide for their families.

One of their most ambitious projects has been the health-center initiative.

"One of our most recent needs assessments resulted in the identification and selection of the Gigante Health Center," says Fox. "True to WOO's process of community-driven development, the Gigante Health Committee has been the driving force for the health project, representing the community as health ambassadors."

With backing from the surf industry and surfers willing to take part in "voluntourism," there's a chance that your favorite charming little surf town doesn't have to become the next Jaco or Cabo.

"WOO wears many hats, but promoting cultural understanding is one of our top priorities. Building healthy communities means promoting cultural understanding. There is no more important task at hand in a place like Gigante, where surf tourism is rapidly reshaping the community," says Fox. "Fundamental to our success is our relationship to the local community. Without the support and trust of the local people, our efforts would not be possible."

These are small steps, but together they keep locals healthy, educated and in better control of their communities. And in the long run, this preserves that local culture that we envision when we're packing our boardbags.