WOMP stands for Women’s Outreach Mentorship Program and is a leadership and mentorship program for underprivileged teens. We use SUP as a means of connecting the girls with nature, their bodies, their community and themselves as women and leaders. This past Spring/Summer, the first ever WOMP program was launched in the Afro-Caribbean community of Old Bank on the Bastimentos Island (located in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama). For 10 weeks, 7 girls were provided the opportunity to SUP and eventually surf, using the art and the ocean as tools to build strong bonds.
With the powerful energy and financial support of our Changing Tides Foundation and Beyond the Surface International, our non-profit partners, as Give and Surf‘s Director of Education I was able to create and direct the first ever women’s empowerment project, #WOMPBocas, by addressing gender inequality, body image and other local issues through art, photography, water sports and ocean love.
In a society where women are disrespected, undervalued and treated as less, nobody cares if they want to grow, be free and discover better. They don’t care if they feel disrespected, unloved or unprotected. They don’t care because they are women living in a “machista” society, where they are just not strong enough. With this program, we aim to show them different.
When I applied for the job of Director of Education at Give and Surf, a grass roots non-profit organization working with education and community development in Bocas del Toro, Panama, I had no idea I would end up combining all my passions, my work and my dreams in one single experience. And it was life changing.
I had always imagined myself working with underprivileged communities but had never really made room for it in my life. What brought me to Panama was the idea of experiencing field work totally out of my comfort zone, understanding the environment and its people, living in a different culture in contact with nature and the ocean, and likeminded individuals that had the same passion for social change that I had. Looking back, I realize my underlying reason was a little selfish, but nonetheless valid. I wasn’t really sure of what would happen, but I’m certain that whatever my unknown expectation, it was definitely exceeded.
The sport and community that I had fallen in love with in Colorado, I was now experiencing in a different way and form. With the support of Changing Tides Foundation, the Coast2Coast movement of Beyond the Surface International, and all our amazing sponsors, I created a 10-week long program which involved building its curriculum, coordinating all the logistics, monitoring costs, and most importantly, leading it. It was flat out hard work, especially while also being a full-time teacher at both our preschools, training our local teachers and coordinators, and supervising our new After School Program.
But for all these challenging, stressful, uncomfortable, fearful times, I couldn’t be more grateful. It sounds cliché, and maybe it is. But hearing the excitement in the girls’ words, the smiles on their faces, the love in their hugs and the happy tears of accomplishment was and is worth all of it. With the unconditional help of Zuli, my local coordinator and friend, who knowing first hand the lack of commitment rooted in her community, we never stopped believing in these girls. Thanks to her, WOMP was possible.
The first weeks we had to spend an hour of every day picking them up, house-to-house, while arguing with either them or their mothers on how important it was to learn the meaning of compromise. It is really hard for them to understand the concept when their parents don’t live by it. In “Basti” culture, when it rains its home time, not school, not water, not work, nothing. So most rainy days, they didn’t show up.
Having girls finish the WOMP program talking to us about things that made them happy, expressing what they liked and disliked about their community, and discussing the gender stereotypes they would like to break, was breathtaking. However, my most cherished moment was when they realized they had discovered a love for the ocean they never knew possible. They mentioned that while in the ocean, they felt like their worries and fears were washed away by the sea. By the end of the 10th week, they asked me for more, trusted me with their fear of the water, begged me to teach them how to surf, and wouldn’t let me go on our last goodbye.
For me, WOMP is passion, love, commitment and hard, hard work. But it all becomes worth it when you realize how much you’ve learned and how much experience you’ve gained. Not only about yourself, but also about the people you surround yourself with. Them being locals, co-workers, program volunteers, but above all, the kids you choose to impact. I challenge every person to find their own #WOMP sometime in their life and make it their own.
If you would like to learn more about the WOMP project or the organizations, please visit:
Give and Surf: giveandsurf.org
Changing Tides Foundation: changhingtidesfoundation.org
Beyond the Surface International: beyondthesurfaceinternational.org,
Director or Education and Hala Gear Team Rider – Jaz Levis
Photo Credits: Ashley Barker – barkerfoto.com