How Santa Cruz native Nick Mucha helped launch the nonprofit Project WOO and why it is empowering surfers to give back to developing communities
It has happened many times throughout history. Travelers searching for destinations that have not yet been “ruined” by tourism arrive in small numbers at a little-known locale that often has few facilities, little access and limited local knowledge of their needs. Soon, awareness of the destination grows, as does the number of visitors, facilities and popularity. Eventually, the community reaches its capacity and finds it challenging to manage the social and environmental costs of mass tourism. As a result, the number of visitors declines until the destination fails.
In 1980, Richard Butler called the process the “Tourist Area Life Cycle” (TALC), and plotted the four stages that a tourist destination experiences on a bell curve. Of course, there are plenty of tourist-supported places around the world that avoid decline because those operating it pursue options to reinvigorate tourism, such as increasing capacity or branching out to other markets, but in developing countries in particular, the whole process can be a slippery slope.
Call it a hunch or intuition, but upon arriving in Gigante, a small, picturesque fishing village in southwestern Nicaragua, in 2005, then 25-year-old Santa Cruz native and avid surfer Nick Mucha knew that the town was sitting at the crosshairs of mass development.
“It was paradise yet to be discovered; empty waves; basically where the jungle meets the ocean,” Mucha says. “And as I looked around, I realized that the things that drew me there—the good waves, the authentic culture and the absence of other gringos—would soon and forever change the fabric of that community. Whether the locals knew it or not, surfing was the first introduction to what was going to be coming.”
What was supposed to be a quick trip to visit a friend who had set up the first surf camp in Gigante, turned into a new mission in life for Mucha. With no way for the community to keep tourists at bay as news of the coastline’s natural beauty and pristine surf spread, Mucha and a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Adam Monaghan, were determined to assist the townspeople in the transition. And so, in 2006, the pair created a nonprofit organization called Project Wave of Optimism (or Project WOO) that primarily relies on the generosity of volunteers to address the impact that surf tours, surf camps and surf culture have on small, isolated and impoverished coastal communities.
Rather than impose their vision for Gigante on the community, Mucha and Monaghan made it the platform of Project WOO to help the locals identify their needs and to lead by following.
“We’re not coming in with ideas, solutions or programs,” he says. “Rather, we’re mobilizing the community and asking questions, and we have a pretty systematic structure to make sure that we’re not imposing our will upon the community.” That structure involves a comprehensive needs assessment, which Project WOO conducts every three years, in which a team of volunteers visits all 146 households in Gigante and spends 45 minutes to an hour asking each family a multitude of questions, including gathering basic demographic information (who lives there, education levels, etc.) and finding out how they feel about the changes within the community.
“Half of it is going door-to-door and engaging people and letting them know our intent: to mobilize and voice their needs,” explains Mucha. “We have big town hall meetings and meetings broken up by different sectors of the community. We have a variety of tools to break down barriers to engagement so that everyone, from the mayor to some kid that’s fresh out of high school, has an equal opportunity to share their vision for Gigante.”
It was during one such needs assessment in 2011 that Project WOO discovered that all but one household in the community viewed tourism as a good thing. Since receiving that feedback, the nonprofit has been committed to helping foster a vibrant, healthy version of tourism in the community that will support the locals both socially and economically.
Since Project WOO conducted its first needs assessment in Gigante in 2006, the nonprofit has worked with locals to address several community-identified needs—from transportation and education to waste management and healthcare. Their first goal was to come up with a way to transport the 30-some local teenagers to high school in the next town over, so that they would no longer have to wake up at 4 a.m. each day in order to walk the 18-mile dirt road.
To accomplish that, Project WOO helped the people of Gigante to write a project proposal and launch a public transportation initiative in 2008.
“We spent hundreds of hours with the community, sitting down as a group, and Adam would lead by asking questions like, ‘If we’re going to have a bus, how many times a day should it run?’ and ‘How much should we charge?’” says Mucha. Project WOO then compiled the data and took it to interested parties in Gigante, in the surrounding communities—where many gringos own vacation homes—and in the United States, in order to find financial support. With the help of donors in all three places, and notably, Reef, a surf apparel company, and the Fabretto Children’s Foundation in Nicaragua, Project WOO was able to purchase an old coffee cargo truck and convert it into a bus for the community to use, and hire a local man to drive and manage it.
Fast forward to today, and “we now know that 79 percent of the entire community uses that one bus as their primary form of transportation,” says Mucha. “That’s adults and school children alike. We also know that it has increased secondary school participation by 81 percent, which is a huge, staggering number we didn’t expect. It’s really meeting a need.”
Always working with community members to find new ways to improve the quality of life, create cross-cultural bridges and promote sustainable practices in Gigante, Project WOO has helped the community get a number of other programs off the ground. One such program is a women’s wellness initiative, co-run by the Sweet Water Foundation, which offers local women yoga and other fitness classes, nutrition advice, and workshops centered around women’s issues, three times a week.
“There’s so much literature on how women can be the key to a healthy community,” says Mucha. “Women are the heads of their households, so to be able to positively engage a woman, you can multiply that impact through her family. If she’s feeling confident, if she’s feeling healthy, if she’s cognizant of her role in the community, that transcends into the other facets of her family.”
Project WOO has also established an active presence in the local elementary school, delivering an English curriculum year-round and offering music and art classes. The team built and has helped the school sustain an organic garden and a library on-site, as well.
But while Santa Cruz resident Gavin Comstock was volunteering with Project WOO in Gigante from Aug. 2011 to June 2012, the majority of his energy went toward the nonprofit’s summer camp, known as “Los Mejores Dias De Verano” (“The Best Days of Summer”).
“In Nicaragua, it was obvious that students were eager for dynamic education,” says Comstock. “The education system there lacks in creative outlets like music, art and things that engage. And summer camp was a completely foreign concept. So we were starting from square zero.”
Comstock, who has worked with a number of outdoor education programs, including Ecology Action, on the Central Coast in the past, was excited by the challenge. So he and the rest of the Project WOO team enlisted the support of local teachers and community members to help design a four- to six-week program that would engage and educate the children in a fun way. The resulting summer camp featured a weekly art project, games, lessons about the importance of “Communidad, Amistad y Respeto” (“Community, Friendship and Respect”), face-painting, and of course, surfing.
“You can’t get closer to the ocean than in Gigante, but many of the kids don’t spend a lot of time at the beach,” says Comstock. “In reality, they’re taking care of their younger sisters and brothers, and they have a lot of responsibility, so this gave them that opportunity.”
Despite the occasional challenges he faced during his time in Gigante, Comstock says that the overall experience working with Project WOO was life changing, and provided him with the skills necessary to land his current job as operations and program manager at Save The Waves.
“I went down as a student of Gigante to learn the customs, the culture, the colloquialisms of Spanish, and to develop relationships based in trust and respect,” he says. “The value of being accepted in another culture is one of the greatest honors a person can experience. And I can see the physical results of things I helped with indirectly and directly. I know I had an impact because I contributed to something positive.”
While not all of Project WOO’s contributions to Gigante are physical—especially when one considers the townspeople’s renewed sense of pride in their community, civic engagement and overall happiness level—the success of the recently launched waste management program is visible evidence of its impact. The seed of the idea for the program came from the leaders of a barrio in the community, who sought out Project WOO for help to remove the increasing amount of trash in town.
In 2012, with the assistance of a local resort, Project WOO was able to distribute 60 trash barrels to 60 households within Gigante, which the families could only obtain after going through a workshop that explained how to properly use them. The nonprofit proceeded to build a waste collection center, where locals could drag their barrels, and, for the first time in the history of the community, secured a trash truck to come to Gigante once every two weeks to collect garbage.
For the last year, Project WOO and a committee of local leaders have been working on their biggest undertaking yet: a community health center, which was identified by locals as the greatest need in Gigante during the 2011 needs assessment. Up until this point, there have only been sporadic doctor visits to a local church with a dirt floor, no electricity and no running water.
The new health center will double as a health education center, with meeting rooms and classrooms, and an adequate and reliable space for doctors to provide primary care every two weeks.
“It’s going to be a total game changer,” says Mucha. “The committee is developing a long-term management plan. And we also see a strong partnership with the Ministry of Health, which will provide doctor visits and some materials. We’ve even had some surfers who are in the medical field come down and say, ‘I can get you beds, lights, etc.’ … There will be a patchwork of care for the community.”
With municipal and Ministry of Health support already secured, a plot of land dedicated and cleared, and the architectural designs nearly finalized, the next step in the development of the health center is fundraising. Though $30,000 of the $70,000 overall construction cost has already been secured, Project WOO and the committee in Gigante still have a long way to go, and are seeking contributions from people around the world who want to support the project, either financially or on a volunteer-basis.
“Projects we’re doing, like healthcare or women’s wellness, to us, that’s not development,” reflects Mucha. “Development is locals stepping up and saying, ‘I’ll dedicate three hours a week to meet with the community to get this done,’ and then sticking by that and seeing it through. That’s the bread and butter of how a community transforms. The healthcare center is just a byproduct of them taking ownership of their future.”
Community transformation is, after all, at the core of Project WOO. Determined to make the community self-sustaining for years to come, the nonprofit is, in a sense, working itself out of a job with every initiative it helps get off the ground. And that’s just fine with Mucha.
“Our ethos is that to really change a community—for real community development to happen—you have to incubate leadership; you have to get the community to have a real stake in it,” he explains. “They can’t just keep looking to the rich gringo to come in and solve all their problems, or they’re just going to become more adept at positioning themselves for handouts.”
While Mucha believes that Project WOO will always have a presence in Gigante to offer some level of program oversight, he and his team envision a future in which the nonprofit expands its work to include other communities around the world.
“The common denominator is people,” says Mucha. “And if we’re able to bring people on board who have this framework, and are able to extract leadership from a community, then we could be doing this anywhere—wherever there’s a coastline and a community that’s interested. There are many communities that have reached out to us—neighboring communities and as far away as Mexico. We’d love to get as many people and organizations as we can to partner with us and make that a reality. The time is now.”
But, being a small organization—Project WOO currently has five staff members, a couple of whom are volunteers and have full-time jobs aside from the nonprofit, and a slew of visiting volunteers who generally help out from one week to six months at a time—making that dream come true is going to take a lot of time, money and manpower.
To help spread the word about the work that Project WOO is doing in Gigante and to educate surfers about how to give back worldwide, 23-year-old local surfer Kyle Thiermann placed the nonprofit at the center of his newest short film, the sixth installment of his Surfing For Change series. The film focuses on Butler’s TALC, with special attention paid to developing countries. He uses the rapid development of Gigante as well as Jaco Beach in Costa Rica as examples.
“As a traveler, you have a huge power to shift these economies,” says Thiermann. “A lot of things [that] communities think tourists want, like mass development, aren’t good in the long run. And often with tourists come drugs and trash in the ocean.”
To learn more about Gigante and Project WOO, Thiermann and his father, Eric—founder of The Impact Media Group—travelled to Nicaragua last August to take in the culture and film what life is like there. During their time there, the pair had the opportunity to ride the aforementioned community bus and visit the local schools. Thiermann says he was impressed by what he saw.
“A lot of nonprofits see big problems in poor places and go in and try to fix them,” says Thiermann. “The problem with that is that if locals don’t take ownership of the programs, once they leave, the programs end. It takes a longer time to get projects up and running when you’re working with locals, but I think what they’re doing is really smart.”
Both Mucha and Thiermann believe that once mobilized, surfers can affect great change in the world, despite stereotypes that imply otherwise.
“Surfers aren’t always seen as the sharpest tools in the shed,” Thiermann says with a laugh. “But the truth is, there are a lot of smart young people doing amazing things right now. It’s really cool that WOO is a young group at the forefront of this model.”
Though Mucha acknowledges that a hotel chain could easily swoop in at any time and purchase Gigante, he and his crew plan to do everything in their power to help the community thrive. And he says he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.
“It’s been really interesting to think back to 2005 when I was down there, and looking around and thinking, this is going to change,” Mucha recalls. “And going back now, everything I foresaw is coming to fruition. We knew tourism was going to be transforming this community, but it’s been totally empowering to see how just a couple of people who are still committed to it, seven years later … I couldn’t have forecasted the impact that we’re having. When I go back now, I think, ‘Wow, this is real.’ I’m riding on the bus with these kids to school; I’m meeting with the Ministry of Health about a health center. It’s crazy to see people put their stake in the ground and say, ‘I’m committed to something.’ It’s all possible.”