Indo Jax Surf Charities: Empowering children through surfing across the globe

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Images from Indo Jax charity surf camps in India. Photos contributed.

An estimated 1 million girls go missing in India each year. The ones who make it to an orphanage have often experienced unimaginable horror. Some were rescued from brothels, some from the streets where they were sent to beg—maimed, dirty, hungry.

At the Homes of Hope orphanage in Kochi, India, the girls look forward to surfing with a group of “uncles” from Wrightsville Beach.

Jack Viorel, co-founder of Indo Jax Surf Charities, recently discussed the mission of Indo Jax, which has focused its international efforts on the girls at Homes of Hope in India.

“These girls have the most horrific stories you’ve ever heard. They’ve been pulled out of brothels. They’ve been found on street corners. They’ve had their eyes gouged out to be ‘better beggars.’ One girl was found in a trash can. So, when we meet them for the first time, they are completely lacking any self-worth or self-esteem. They won’t look us in the eye. Their heads are down. They’re very timid and shy. When we meet them, that’s when we get to work trying to build up their self-esteem and self-worth.

“We’re trying to build positive memories to replace their horrifying ones that they have. These girls have had the most horrific lives you can imagine. And we’re just trying to change that. Give them an outlook on life that’s positive,” Viorel said.

Indo Jax Surf Charities is a Wrightsville Beach-based nonprofit that provides free surf camps to children with special needs, children who are considered at-risk and children who are medically fragile.

“The idea behind it is that the ocean and learning to surf provide an experience that empowers and uplifts and builds self-esteem in those children,” Viorel said.

In just eight years, Indo Jax Surf Charities has grown from its first surf camp at Wrightsville Beach with children who have HIV and AIDS to, last year, hosting a surf camp in every ocean on the planet.

“That first program was so successful and so positive and uplifting that it just built from there. I was inspired by Surfers Healing, which works with children with autism. I volunteered with that and wanted to apply that concept to children with other special needs,” he said.

Surf instructors teach Indian orphans to surf near Kochi, India.

Worldwide, Indo Jax Surf Charities holds 15 camps a year for children with visual impairments, hearing impairments, diabetes, AIDS and orphans. They’ve also had camps for injured veterans.

“What we decided to do was, rather than try to go everywhere all the time, was to plant seeds of this with other surf schools around the globe,” he said.

Those partnerships have taken Indo Jax to the Half Moon Bay Surf Club in California and Norway, where Viorel held a surf camp in the Arctic Ocean. There, in the Arctic Ocean, children with mental illnesses, orphans and United Nations refugees from Afghanistan learned to surf.

“They were amazed at how surfing positively affected all those people,” Viorel said. “I really feel like there’s a couple things. This idea of being immersed in nature—when you’re in the ocean you are completely immersed in nature. You’re not just looking at it; you’re living it. Waves are crashing all around you. It’s saltwater, it’s wind—you’re just completely immersed in it,” he said.

Surfing is different than basketball camp, for example, where there are constants—the net’s always the same height, the court’s always the same length, the ball is always round and bounces.

“With surfing, every day you go to the beach, there’s something new to deal with. There may be wind, there may be big waves, there may be super-small waves. So, you’re constantly negotiating your way through an unfamiliar, ever-changing environment. And it lends itself to life skills that you can’t learn anywhere else.

A girl from the Homes of Hope orphanage in Kochi, India, learns to surf through Indo Jax Charity Surf Camps.

“I taught first grade for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything teach life skills the way the ocean and learning to surf does. I think that’s an important part of it—the ocean teaches some of it, and kind of provides some of this, but learning to surf is a very important aspect of this.

“Learning to surf, you fall, you get back up, you’ve got to paddle through relentless waves to get out, you have to deal with a little bit of fear. There’s nothing else that can provide an experience that’s that all-encompassing. So I feel like you can learn all of life’s skills by learning to surf,” Viorel said.

With children who are visually impaired, for example, Viorel said they often have an “existing, limiting belief among themselves and their parents they can’t do that because they’re blind.”

“And we get this a lot. And we say, ‘No, they can do this because they’re blind.’ And we’re going to show you how this can be done,” he said.

Indo Jax recently finished its sixth weeklong camp for visually impaired children.

“I’m still amazed. These kids surf as well as anybody else and they cannot see. They can feel the waves coming. They get in tune with the rhythms of the ocean. They can feel it. They can maybe hear it differently than we could. Anybody who is out there will say the same thing. It was remarkable.

“You would think not being able to see would be the end-all for surfing, and it’s not. It’s just the beginning. So, that’s why we believe that these camps are critical for these children for the rest of their lives. They never have to surf again. It has nothing to do with surfing. It’s just a vehicle.

“It just leaves them with a sense of ‘if I can do this, I can do anything,’ and the rest of their life is now in front of them,” Viorel said.

‘My Name Uncle’

Back in Kochi, India, the girls refer to Viorel and the other instructors as “uncle,” an equivalent to “sir” as a form of respect.

Indo Jax surf instructors teaching girls in India to surf.

“My Name Uncle,” the documentary chronicling the group’s trips to India, will premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at Satellite Bar and Lounge on Greenfield Street near downtown Wilmington. The event will last from 7-11 p.m. In addition to the film’s premiere by filmmaker Matt Batchelor, Dubtown Cosmonauts and No $ Shoes will perform.

“The documentary encompasses the whole history of our India program that has grown from 20 girls the first year to 100 girls this year in two locations on two coastlines. India is a program that, because there’s no surfing infrastructure there, we had to build that program,” Viorel said.

Indo Jax relies donations and some grants to fund the charity surf camps, which are free to all participants.

“The camps are so powerful, so fun, that we just keep doing them—keep adding numbers, keep adding camps—even if we don’t always have the resources,” Viorel said.

For more information on Indo Jax Surf Charities or to donate, click here.

Click here to watch the trailer of “My Name Uncle.”

Caroline Curran is the managing editor at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or caroline.c@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter at @cgcurran.