La Jollan hopes youth surf clubs will fight homelessness


By Leigh Ann Dewey


A native La Jollan has turned her passion for surfing into a path to help others.

Lifelong surfer Emi Koch, 20, is founder and director of Beyond the Surface. The international nonprofit corporation’s goal is to eradicate youth homelessness in coastal communities throughout the world, and empower homeless street children through the sport of surfing.

The group supports three youth surf clubs: the Kovalam Surf Club in India, WAVES for Development in Peru, and the Umthombo Surf Club in South Africa. A mounting number of children in the coastal communities of each of those countries are homeless, living on the street and fending for themselves, Koch said.

“These children have no (healthy) outlets,” often joining violent gangs just to get food, she said. “There are some services for them, such as orphanages,” she said. “They bring the children in, but have strict rules,” which the youngsters often have a hard time following.

“The street life is all they know, so they go back there,” Koch said. If they follow orphanage rules, they can join affiliated surf clubs. The clubs act as an incentive for children to stay in the orphanages, and “give them a sense of purpose and community,” she said.

A sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Koch grew up as the daughter of an avid surfer and former lifeguard at La Jolla Cove. She became a lover of the sport at a very young age.

“She’s always loved the water,” said her father, Jeff. “I think I put her on a surfboard when she was 2.”

“I felt more at home in the water than I did on land,” she said. “I grew up in the surfing culture and thought I would one day be a pro surfer. I was sponsored by Mission Surf Shop when I was 13 years old and started entering contest after contest.” She joined a modeling agency and auditioned for the role of Bethany Hamilton, the Hawaiian surfer who lost an arm to a shark attack, in the upcoming movie “Soul Surfer.” She and Hamilton have since become good friends.

For a while, said Koch, “I was (living) on a superficial basis of wanting to promote myself and ‘me, me, me.’ ” She said that attitude took a major turn when she was a senior at Our Lady of Peace High School in La Jolla, and attended a class held by school counselor Cynthia Teal.

There, Koch said, “I heard a statistic that if the world’s population was (condensed) into a village of 100 people, only one of that 100 would have the chance at a college education and (own) a computer.”

Upon hearing that statistic, Koch said she felt she was that one person in the village, and that she needed to fight for the rights of the other 99 people, so they would have the same opportunities she had.

Koch entered Georgetown University as an international politics major in the School of Foreign Service. Her career goal, she said, was to become a U.S. foreign diplomat. After her first year of college, she volunteered during the summer in Nepal, where she lived with Buddhist monks and taught street children at the local monastery school. “I felt that this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” she said.

She developed the idea of Beyond the Surface while surfing in La Jolla for the remainder of her summer. One of Koch’s first steps was to order a book on how to start a nonprofit organization.

At Georgetown, Koch changed her major to anthropology, with a minor in peace and justice. She said she wants a career that is less political, and allows her to “do something more for these kids” and situations in their countries that cause such inequalities.

After extensive research, Koch said she contacted directors of the three surf clubs her organization now works with, and asked how her group could help. Beyond the Surface is now busy raising funds to assist the groups by seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations, large and small.

In San Diego, Koch met during her winter break with representatives from Billabong and Sun Diego Boardshops to work on marketing and merchandising plans to benefit her organization’s goals. During spring break, she will meet with at least one other company to discuss similar plans.

The Beyond the Surface Web site explains how a single donation can benefit one child for a month. A $20 donation, through the organization, can educate a child; a $30 donation can house a child; and a $50 donation can feed a child. Donations of $50 can keep a child enrolled in a surf program for one month, and a $100 gift can pay for a child’s wet suit.

At Georgetown, surrounded by winter snow, Koch sparks interest among fellow students for her cause as she works part time in the library coffee shop, Midnight Mug. A portion of a particular drink sold at the establishment during February and March goes toward Beyond the Surface. In addition, Koch said she is donating money from her earnings at the establishment to her organization “just to get (the group) off the ground until more funding through grants or donations come in.”

“A lot of people here are really excited about it,” said Koch, who is also busy researching grants that Beyond the Surface qualifies for.

“Her mom (Karen) and I are very proud of her,” said her dad, Jeff. “She’s always been very socially conscious and compassionate. She never ceases to amaze me about the things she accomplishes.”

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