Many Hands Make Light Work

by Emily Talentino
What happens when communities, NGOs, the local government, and civic-minded citizens all work together with the same goals in mind? Stuff gets done and quickly! In the last year, Bocas has seen the construction of two classrooms, a cafeteria & water catchment system in Bahia Roja, a community center & playground in Old Bank, a teacher’s house on Isla Solarte and a preschool classroom in Boca del Drago. Another primary school classroom will be completed in the next couple of months in Boca del Drago along with the installation of solar panels and a computer lab, and additional projects are slated for later this year. The projects have been led by Give & Surf (, a small nonprofit that has operated in Bocas del Toro since 2011. Give & Surf serves as the convener, bringing together the local communities, key stakeholders, outside funders, other NGOs, and international volunteers to make these projects possible. Their first step is collaborating with local government representatives and key stakeholders to identify the needs and wants of a community, and then connecting with other nonprofit organizations and individuals to secure funding and volunteers to help to execute the projects. “The great part about this process is, it’s never us dictating what we think they need. We attend community meetings and meet with local representatives regularly and they tell us what they want and what their vision for their community is,” says Neil Christiansen, president & founder of Give & Surf.

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Agreeing on a project and finding funding is only the beginning. The community who is receiving the donation has to agree to help, usually in the form of volunteer labor, which helps to ensure their commitment and buy-in as well as lowering the cost of the project. Give & Surf directly manages the finances and oversight of the construction to ensure transparency and facilitate communication between funders and the local communities, but it’s really the communities themselves that provide the heavy labor. In the case of the Boca del Drago classroom, which was completed in March 2016, the community formed a leadership committee and everyone had assigned roles. Then, every mother and father was assigned shifts each week for the duration of the nine week project; the fathers helped with construction and the mothers cooked lunch and dinner.  The Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) stepped up and donated floor tiles, lights, fans, and drop ceilings for the new classroom and provided the architectural plans. “The Bocas del Drago preschool classroom is a shining example of what can happen when everyone works collaboratively,” says Neil. “The community had been asking for that classroom for years and they put in the effort to make their vision a reality, and now 20 preschoolers have the opportunity to go to school.”

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What may seem like a daunting project because of cost, politics, and labor suddenly becomes manageable when the responsibilities are shared. A new classroom can be built for as little as $20,000 in two months thanks to the volunteer labor provided by the community and volunteers from abroad. And the impact extends far beyond the walls being constructed and the students who will attend the school; fathers are learning new construction skills that will help them find jobs in the future, locals and foreigners work side-by-side and learn about each others’ cultures, and communities are empowered to dream bigger and act on their vision on what they want for their children and their future. For information on how to support an upcoming project, please contact:


The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

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