Surfing presents opportunity for Haitian youth

PO‘IPU — Alan and Sam Potter discovered that Hawai‘i and Haiti have a lot in common when it comes to beautiful scenery, warm water and big waves. The father-and-son team hope to introduce surfing as a way to teach a generation of Haitian youth the tools for business and life.

The Potters spent three weeks in Haiti last June, helping other volunteers from Kaua‘i to serve the needy on the earthquake-devastated island. The visit inspired them to help kids start a civic-minded surfing club, and to help villagers install better hurricane-protection materials.

“People say that is so great, but we say it was super fun and that we were blessed and lucky to go,” Potter said. “This was not a sacrifice on our part.”

Potter learned about relief work from Dr. Ken and Diane Pierce, who attend the same church on Kaua‘i. Ken, a physician, and Diane, an LPN, took part in two medical missions following the devastating 7.0 Mw earthquake that struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. Hundreds of thousands were killed, injured, orphaned or became homeless.

Ken would eventually direct the Hands and Feet Project in Jacmel, Haiti, an orphanage started seven years ago by the Christian rock band, Audio Adrenaline. The couple and their 18-year-old daughter, Emily, have been in Haiti for the past nine months.

The Haitian government recently sent the project about 30 kids from other orphanages that were shut down, Potter said, where “kids were disappearing” from human trafficking. About 10 percent of Haitian orphans are parentless, he added. Parents out of work or homeless want them to survive and have a better life.

The foundation does its best to keep families together, from supporting them with food and clothing, and at times taking entire families in at the orphanage. The important goal is to keep the family together. Some parents visit their kids and some even work at the orphanage.

“I thought the impressive thing was that Hands and Feet are not just rescuing kids on the street and keeping them safe, but they have a mission to raise future leaders of Haiti,” Potter said.

Potter saw his way to help and contacted Waves For Water, an organization that provides water filters to surfers in their travels. They bring the filters to impoverished communities where dysentery and water-born illnesses are common.

He and Sam used their Facebook network to help collect donations and were able to bring 20 filters and eight surfboards to Haiti.

“People have been really great,” Potter said. “Given the opportunity, people really want to be involved and help.”

Warm waters,

warm people

Flying into Port-au-Prince, Potter said there are 3 million people living in a city built to accommodate about 150,000. The tent cities still remain and there is still evidence of the quake in the rubble.

“There are a lot of contrasts,” said Potter. “It is such a beautiful country and you don’t see that in the news at all. The people are warm and friendly and fun. They are very hard working and doing what they can to raise their kids and put them in school.”

Surfing is largely unknown to  Haitians, and Potter said the kids were fascinated with Ken’s surfboards and that the conditions were very good to set up a surf camp for kids. The kids are psyched on surfing lessons, but were not familiar with the sport. They call the boards “boats” and many had to overcome a fear of swimming in the ocean.

“We would take the kids out every day and just teach them to paddle out and ride in,” Sam said. “They are getting really good.”

The effort started out with the orphans, but once they were in the water, they said the local kids began lining the hill top out of curiosity. It wasn’t long before they were on the beach and in the water, paddling out with the boards.

“The water was warm and clean,” Potter said. “We were surprised that the waves were so fun, and that no one surfs. There were tons of breaks.”

The kids were described as good and that they watched out for one another. When the Potters brought food, the bigger kids prevented a mob mentality and halted distribution to ensure that no-one was getting seconds before all the children had something to eat.

“In the orphanage if you give the kids a soda they will pass it around so that everyone gets a sip,” Potter said.

Teaching surf culture

The next step is to teach a sense of community service. They started with a beach cleanup activity.

“We found a place to make a little dump and introduced the surfing culture,” he said.

The Potters “Surf and Service Club” was an idea for a long term goal of teaching self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial skills. The kids come in and have fun learning to surf. Then they have lunch and learn some English.

“Our hope is to pave the way for surf tourism,” he added. “The kids could rent boards and give lessons or have a nice little surf shop.”

With development potential growing in the Jacmel area, Potter expects that the beautiful, south side beaches of Haiti will become a surfer destination.

“The surf club might help pave the way for some income and jobs there,” he said.

Potter is seeking sponsorships from surfing related companies and is also starting on a separate project to improve hurricane screening in Haiti, which is struck frequently by strong Caribbean storms each season.

They distributed water filters to families of the children and through Emily Pierce, who the locals call “Dr. Emily” for her routine of visiting villages and hospitals to find the sick — especially those with tuberculosis, a treatable condition they said is not being effectively addressed by the government.

Emily cuts through the red-tape for the patients, bringing medical supplies in her backpack and even buying bed sheets.

“She knows who is sick with dysentery and takes a water filter to them,” Sam said. 

The two encourage people to visit handsandfeetproject.org and sponsor kids or families. It allows the orphanage to not only to pay for immediate needs, but they also put 10 percent in a savings account for the kids to use later for school or to start business.

Sam said the sad images were “really heavy” and that he left with mixed feelings of wanting to go home and wanting to stay and help. Now the 15-year-old has resolved to find a summer job to help pay for his return trip next year.

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