Ask any Panamanian what’s the best surfing spot in the country and they will likely mention Pedasí, a town in the southern province of Los Santos on the tip of Azuero Peninsula. The pristine waters, adventurous waves and exquisite gastronomy attract both locals and visitors to this picturesque corner of the Earth. But, beyond the physical beauty of Pedasí, there’s also a silent need to improve education.
In 2015, more than two thousand public schools around the country suffered from infrastructure problems, according to a report in Panama’s La Prensa newspaper. The classrooms were dark due to insufficient lighting and paint was peeling off the walls, desks were outdated and bathrooms had deteriorated after years of neglect. Based on the findings, the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) committed to improve 381 schools through the project Mi Escuela Primero (My School First).
That’s why Bastian Barnbeck founded Waved Foundation, an organization that, in collaboration with MEDUCA, is dedicated to raising money through surfing to improve local schools in Pedasí.
Barnbeck isn’t a pro surfer. The German native, who has also lived in France, Switzerland, England and Chile, picked up the sport about two and a half years ago in Brazil, where the idea for Waved Foundation started.
For Barnbeck, his a-ha moment struck during a surf session. He kept playing with the idea of how much money could be raised if every surfer donated one dollar per wave. He then consulted with colleagues and friends, and after many recommendations, he decided to turn his idea into a goal: improve education.
He started hitting the waves while working as a project manager for a retail company in Sao Paulo, Brazil and was immediately hooked. Surfing became more of a focus in his life, and he decided to move to a place where he could practice Spanish, spend more time in the ocean, and develop his education project. He settled on Pedasí, Panama.
Waved Foundation, officially established in June 2016 with the support of MEDUCA, focuses on small schools in rural Panama, located near the sea (for surfing purposes) that have many needs but receive little help from the government. While developing his plan, Barnbeck reached out to a representative of the ministry. Within two weeks of his arrival, the organization granted him permission to start the project at one school in Pedasí.
As its name suggests, the organization combines waves and education with an emphasis on three pillars: improving public school infrastructure, providing English lessons, and teaching swimming and surfing lessons in Pedasí.
“We had to start with infrastructure because it doesn’t make sense to teach if there’s no light in the classroom,” Barnbeck says.
The foundation raises money in a variety of ways including sponsorships, partnerships, and surfing events, like the recent #GotWaved Tour, where they promoted the concept of “one dollar per wave.” For every wave a surfer caught, they were asked to donate one dollar to the organization. So far, the tour has raised $6,000 dollars, every dollar representing a surfed wave.
So far four schools have benefitted from Waved Foundation’s efforts. The projects have included electrical rewiring, refurbishing basketball courts and playgrounds, classroom remodeling and bathroom renovations. Additionally, the organization also supports swimming and surfing lessons for children in the community; it has developed a fruit garden project, in which students can participate and benefit from their own fruit garden in the schoolyard; and, provides English lessons to beneficiary schools.
Manuel Herrera, a teacher at Escuela Los Destiladeros, says the foundation helped provide electricity to his school. Maestro Manuel, as his students refer to him, is the only teacher at a multi-grade school, where he’s currently in charge of 13 students between the ages of six and 12 — all inside the same classroom. While he recognizes there is still much to be done to improve education for his students, he’s ”particularly thankful for the support the Waved Foundation has given me in terms of staff support.” In addition to swim lessons, all students at Los Destiladeros receive at least two English classes each week taught by Waved Foundation volunteers.
Barnbeck sees the waves that brought him to Pedasí as a metaphor for the potential reach of his foundation. “The wave is a symbol on its own because even if you can’t surf, you can find a way to cooperate. Whether it’s through volunteering, donations or even spreading the word—creating a ripple effect.”
He hopes that this movement will create its own ripple effect, spreading to other communities in other countries. “The idea is to hopefully make this accessible worldwide. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’ve got waves, people can implement the ‘one dollar per wave’ concept and help their local schools,” says Barnbeck, who was recently nominated for the Heroes for Panama Award. “[We] need to stop being reactive, and start to be proactive.”
Barnbeck envisions a future with fewer multi-grade schools and more support and supervision for Panamanian teachers to provide their students with the best education possible. He’s working to make that vision a reality—one wave at a time.