Meet the Former Pro Surfer Who’s Tackling the World’s Water Crisis
Everything about Waves for Water—from their mission (get clean water to every person who needs it) to their approach (“guerilla humanitarianism,” military collaboration, and DIY courier program)—made an Earth Day partnership a no-brainer for the Huckberry team, so we’re donating $1 per order and 100% of proceeds for the 2019 Earth Day Tee to Waves for Water through April 28. Even so, we weren’t prepared for how unequivocally badass the story of the organization’s conception really is.
We sat down with Waves for Water Founder Jon Rose to learn about the studio apartment one block from the beach that fostered an early love for surfing that would turn into a 13-year professional career, the casual pet project that took a serious turn after a terrible earthquake and some divine intervention, and the belief that drives his innovative, multi-level, and sometimes unorthodox approach to the work he does all over the world: The global water crisis is solvable.
Raised on the Water
At 10 years old, I had just moved to Southern California with my dad after my parents split, and he gave me a choice: He said, “here’s the deal, this studio apartment is what I can afford. We’ll be staying in the same room, but we’ll be closer to the beach. Or, if you want your own room, we can move to the next town inland.” I chose the beach.
At 10 years old, my dad gave me a choice... I chose the beach.
And that’s where it began—in a studio apartment one block from the beach. We didn’t really have the resources for me to do a lot of extracurricular stuff, so when I got out of school at 2:30, I’d go to the beach until my dad got home. It worked out well because there was always this camaraderie of surfers there—especially in a small town. At the beach, guys in their 40s all the way down to their teens were all part of the same tribe. I think my dad knew that that tribe would be my babysitter.
It’s weird to feel like you have such a sense of purpose at 10—but I really did. I wanted to be a surfer. I was pretty hyper-competitive, and that led me to push myself a little harder than the rest of the kids, and I got good. I ended up turning pro at 17. I thought I was put on this earth to be a pro surfer.
By age 30 my contracts were getting smaller and smaller. Not only that, all the kids were way better than me. I probably could have milked it a bit longer, but I’d had a 13-year career as a pro surfer, and I was ready to start looking into other things.
Up until that point I hadn’t been some overly do-gooder type person. When you’re in a professional individual sport, you’re super self-centered because you have to be. You are your brand, and it’s all up to you. So when I went to Indonesia on surfing trips, my thought process was something like, “wow, look at those people in need, that’s so sad, but when’s the tide getting low?” I thought I didn’t have the bandwidth to help at the time, but it was really more the desire that I didn’t have. The cool thing is, I recognized it, and it eventually did sink in.
I chose water because it seemed solvable.
That was the conception of Waves for Water. At first, I didn’t think it would be a job but a fun pet project—and in all honesty, an excuse to go back to Indonesia twice a year to surf. I figured if I got some corporate job, I could tell my new boss, “I’m very excited to work with you, but I go to Indonesia twice a year for my organization.”
I chose water because I had seen that there was a need, and it seemed solvable. I figured I’d rally my friends and use my pull in the surfing community to do this work in Indonesia twice a year. I wasn’t an expert on any of this, but I’m an outdoorsman and had used filters when I’d gone hiking. It didn’t seem like a question of technology; it seemed like a question of access. And I could provide access.
So I bought 10 filters with my own money and traveled to the Mentawai Islands, just off Sumatra in Indonesia. Then, on the way back to Padang (the capital of Sumatra) a 7.6 earthquake hit. And we felt it—you can still feel the earth shaking on the water. Once we verified there wasn’t a tsunami threat, we decided to stay on the boat for the night instead of trying to check into our hotel.
When we woke up in the morning and saw Padang in the daylight, it was unrecognizable. Buildings were missing or sideways, and there was smoke and fire.
When we woke up in the morning and saw Padang in the daylight, it was unrecognizable. Buildings were missing or sideways, and there was smoke and fire. I certainly wasn’t experienced in first-response, but common sense told me that my filters were more needed here than on the islands I had been planning to take them. I remember asking the captain if he’d let me stay on the boat that night if I went in and tried to help, and the next thing I knew his deckhand was dropping me off with a bag of 10 filters and no real plan.
I remember walking through the city and hearing people scream from underneath rubble and slabs of concrete the size of cars. When I finally made it to the relief centers, there were two tents; one housed the wounded, and the other was full of dead bodies. Seeing that level of loss up close changes your life forever, but seeing it within the context of actually being able to help like I did was especially impactful.
It felt like divine intervention. I had 10 filters that cost me $200, and those filters helped thousands of people.
Padang is a bustling city, so they have access to bottled water in their day-to-day lives, but in this catastrophe, that’s all gone—all they have is well water that’s not really clean. But I was able to set up filters at the relief centers, and then that water was primarily used for cleaning wounds. I remember after we figured that out at the first relief center, I asked, “how many other relief centers are there?” And they said nine. It felt like divine intervention. I had 10 filters that cost me $200, and those filters helped thousands of people.
Two months after that, the 2010 Haiti earthquake hit, and someone putting together a relief team reached out to me. He asked if what I’d done in Indonesia would be viable in Haiti. I told him yes—not that I really knew—and the next day I was on a plane to Haiti. I thought I would be there for two weeks and stayed for two years.
And because I had been a competitive athlete, I approached things differently. I wanted to win the battle with the crisis.
And that’s where I built Waves for Water. I was rubbing shoulders with the heads of UNICEF, all the way down to mom and pop missionaries, and I learned a lot but ultimately realized that I’m the author, and I get to write the story of my organization. Because my background isn’t in relief, I came with a fresh perspective. And because I had been a competitive athlete, I approached things differently—I wanted to win the battle with the crisis. I’ve been called a “Guerilla Humanitarian” because in certain instances—and especially in extreme and time-sensitive situations like disaster or disease outbreak—I just won’t wait. I won’t be stopped by bureaucratic gridlock that can sometimes exist in bigger or older organizations. The guerrilla approach is about taking action—it’s working around the system to do the right thing if you have to.
If Waves for Water helps the military keep peace or build community rapport for a larger mission, use me. I’m using them just as much.
Waves for Water was the first nonprofit to team up with a US military battalion in Afghanistan. And we were able to do that because we don’t come from a traditional aid background, where it’s sometimes taboo to work with the military because there’s this attitude that our goals are on opposite sides of the spectrum. You’re warned that if you try to work with the military, they’ll just be using you for their own agenda—which is true. But the way I see it, if Waves for Water helps the military keep peace or build community rapport for a larger mission, use me. I’m using them just as much. I have my own agenda—getting these populations access to clean water. I couldn’t do that without the military, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. As a result, about 30,000 more Afghan people now have access to clean water.
Since then, we have partnered with the US military in nine countries and more than 15 different programs. The relationship also inspired Waves for Water’s military veteran division called the Clean Water Corps, which trains veterans to apply the skills they learned from their time in the service to fighting water-borne diseases.
“In all that I’ve learned, there was one thing I was right about from the get-go: This is solvable.”
When I first started Waves for Water, one in six people in the world didn’t have access to clean water, according to the World Health Organization. Now, that number is one in nine. Of course, I can’t take responsibility for changing that, but I know we’ve contributed. In all that I’ve learned, there was one thing I was right about from the get-go: This is solvable.
How to Get Involved
Our hands-on courier program isn’t the traditional volunteer program where you sign up online, you show up wearing matching t-shirts, and we tell you what to do.
You alone could go change somebody’s life forever for $50. A lot of times people think, “I’m just one person, what can I do?” The next time you take a trip to a developing country, put one filter in your backpack, it could provide a million gallons of water.
Our hands-on courier program isn’t the traditional volunteer program where you sign up online, you show up wearing matching t-shirts, and we tell you what to do. It’s DIY-style—on purpose. It’s supposed to be empowering and allow you to volunteer during trips you’re already taking. Let’s say you’re a clothing designer that has to go to Bangladesh twice a year to check on your factories or you’re going on your honeymoon to Bali. You could be a college kid who’s finally got a break and wants to go to Nicaragua on a surf trip. You sign up and create your own fundraising page on our site where you describe your trip and set your goals. Our crowdfunding platform allows people to select a specific project and either donate themselves or create a fundraiser to encourage their friends to donate. Once you hit that goal, we get you those filters and train you to implement them yourself.
We do it this way because it’s based on what I did that first time in Indonesia. We want our volunteers to craft their own empowering experiences like the one that inspired the conception of this organization in the first place.
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