When you see a sophomore girl selling towels in Red Square next month to raise money for a charity, know this: she could have been in movies.
But lifelong surfer Emi Koch (COL ’12) turned down that opportunity years ago to start an international non-profit to support opportunities for impoverished children instead. Now, she’s head of Beyond the Surface, International, a group that raises money to support centers where underprivileged children in Peru, South Africa, and India can learn to surf—a positive activity, Koch said, for children in poor communities where there usually aren’t alternatives.
“In Western society, we’re so used to having a Boy Scout group a Girl Scout group, or a volleyball club,” she said, “but there they don’t really have anything like that, so this gives them more self-empowerment and more self-confidence.”
In Peru, the center Beyond the Surface sponsors works with providing children with an activity after school. The second center is located in South Africa, where Koch said it serves as more of a rehabilitation clinic. Sniffing glue has become a popular drug addiction among the children in the community where the center is located, she said, and the surfing serves as a tool for rehabilitation. The third center, located in India, is dedicated to keeping kids out of violent street gangs. The center tries to get children off the streets by replacing their gang with a home in the life of surfing.
Koch didn’t always have non-profit work in her sights. She grew up in San Diego, California, where she began surfing at two and eventually surfed every day before and after school and as early as 6 a.m. on weekends. Her determination to surf professionally someday led her to work with a modeling agency. Eventually, her work as a model got her a shot to act in the movie Soul Surfer as Bethany Hamilton, the surfer who lost her left arm during a shark attack.
But after realizing that her dream of being a famous professional surfer might come true, Koch began to develop a very different perspective on her goals.
“It just became very superficial,” Koch said, after discussing her modeling deal, “Like I was just promoting myself. I wasn’t doing anything else for anybody—just for me.”
That really hit home, she said, when she started learning more about international poverty in high school. She turned down the deal for Soul Surfer, which is now in production with a different surfer starring as Hamilton. And then while volunteering in a Nepalese monastery one summer, she learned about Skate-a-Stan, an organization that provides skateboards for orphans in Afghanistan and gives them the opportunity for a meaningful hobby after school.
Once she got home, the idea for Beyond the Surface was born. She has been fundraising ever since, through her website and in person—last Tuesday, she found out that following a meeting she had over winter break with top members of Billabong, the surfwear company, Billabong is going to pay for her to take a trip to Peru and provide the kids there with free Billabong wetsuits and other items.
Koch says that although the country directors are the ones actually working in the centers, she plans on getting more involved internationally once she has graduated. Right now, she’s just focused on providing the best support she can from the United States.
“If the world was comprised of 100 people, only one person would have access to a computer and the opportunity to go to college,” she said she learned while she was in high school, “and from that point it was a total shift … I have the opportunity to go to college. I kind of owe it to those 99 other people to do something for them.”