Lonely Planet Writer

Meet the surfer who's riding waves to fund public schools in Panama

While Panama City has been flourishing into an affluent metropolis, schools in the countryside still suffer from severe lack of funding. Cut off from the capital, with poor infrastructure, these are often dark, rundown and without an outdoor space for kids to play.

Bastian Barnbeck with the Panamanian flag.

Surfer Bastian Barnbeck has taken things into his own hands. Founder of the Waved Foundation, the 32-year-old German is raising money for deprived primary schools in the area of Pedasí, one wave at a time. Barnbeck says that “53% of public primary schools in Panama still operate the ‘multigrado’ system, meaning that children ages five to 12 sit in the same classroom. Imagine teaching maths to all those kids at the same time – it’s impossible.”

Barnbeck surfing with the kids

In collaboration with Panama’s Ministry of Education (MEDUCA), and with the support of sponsors and volunteers, Waved looks at improving existing infrastructure, providing English classes, giving children swim and surf lessons, and implementing nutrition programs.

Raising funds through surfing.

The foundation also runs surf events to raise funds. For every wave a surfer catches a sponsor chips in one dollar. “They treat us as if we were professional athletes, though we’re not. We place a four-digit counter under a tent on the beach and count the waves with a remote.” Barnbeck recalls how surfing in Brazil changed his perspective on life. “I discovered that surfing is much more than just a sport. The surf community is so close together, always trying to give back to minorities through donations, beach cleanings, and by providing boards to those who can’t afford them.”

Fancy a challenge? Come to Panama
Panama is a popular international surfing destination.  Image by VML.

Looking for a way to combine his love for education and his passion for surf, he left his career as a management consultant and moved to Panama to start the Waved Foundation. “I was looking for a country that would be small enough, to begin with, with good waves, and a great need for help with education,” said Barnbeck. Panama turned out being the perfect place.

Words: Martina Gili