The Women’s Outreach Mentorship Program (WOMP) provides underprivileged teenage girls the opportunity to improve their swimming skills, learn how to SUP and eventually surf, encourage them to grow personally and build strong bonds with each other using art and the ocean as tools. The first ever WOMP program has launched in the Afro-Caribbean community of Old Bank on the island Bastimentos located in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama. The program lasts 10 weeks, meeting two times a week throughout the Spring and Summer months.
The #WOMPBocas is administered by our local non-profit partner Give and Surf and funded by Changing Tides Foundation. In June 2017, the Changing Tides Foundation Team traveled to Bocas del Toro to participate and engage with the participants of WOMP Bocas along with special guest, Emi Koch from Beyond the Surface International. While in Bocas, Give and Surf, CTF and BTSI collaborated on a 3-day women’s empowerment clinic to address gender inequality, body image and other local issues through art, photography and water sports and to document the WOMP program’s progress
Here is what we knew going into the project: To our knowledge is the first-ever female oriented group formed in Bocas del Toro. The girls in the community are not accustomed to expressing their feelings and showing emotions. They are not generally outgoing and accepting to outsiders. They are generally self-conscious and shy and pretty private. Also, when it rains, generally everything is cancelled; no one leaves their homes.
Here is what we were able to accomplish in our short time with the WOMP ladies: Through icebreakers and bonding exercises, we made strong connections with the girls almost immediately. We spoke to them about who we are and how we all connected and how the ocean brought us all together. They opened up to us about things that make them happy and expressed what they liked and disliked about their community and the gender stereotypes they would like to break. They talked about how, only 3 weeks into the WOMP program, they had discovered a love for the ocean they never knew possible. The talked about the joy they feel when they’re in the ocean and how their worries, fears and problems were washed away by the sea, which is something we could all relate to. They talked about how, in such a short time, the WOMP program has changed their lives, and how it is the biggest thing they look forward to every week. Then we did a “photo shoot” with their newly donated hats and rash guards and swimsuits from RVCA and The Seea. This really brought them out of their shells from a physical standpoint. They were so happy and felt so pretty and they produced the shots they wanted themselves.
The next day, Emi Koch led a photography workshop, speaking about perception and how we all perceive things differently and how different angles of the same thing can be so interesting and make something beautiful. We showed them some of the photos from their swimsuit photo shoot the previous day, and they delighted in how beautiful they looked and all cheered each other on. We did a jungle walk and gave all of the girls cameras to use to shoot things in their community. Along the way, we took photos of and talked about the trash problem on the island and offering suggestions on how they could help change that. We ended up at the beach, where we gave them their Patagonia gear bags which were loaded with goodies like masks, snorkels, swimcaps, Mizu water bottles, Spy sunglasses Avasol sunscreen and RVCA towels. The gear bags will remain property of the WOMP program for their continued use and for future participants. Then the girls got on the WOMP Program’s new inflatable SUP’s from Milkshake and XTerra and those donated by Gerry Lopez and other donors and used their Black Fin Paddles and took off paddling for the next island where we met them to snorkel. This time in the water was so amazing! The smiles and giggles were plentiful. Their laughter was so contagious. We were all one in the same, on a level playing field; no class or color to worry about. It was beautiful.
On the third day of the program we were scheduled for a field trip to Polo Beach to SUP and snorkel but it rained, so we expected our time with the girls to be cancelled. Much to everyone’s surprise, the girls showed up to the community center right on time to wait for us. They didn’t want to miss more time with us. Because of the rain, in lieu of SUP, the girls decided they wanted to see the pictures from the workshop the previous day. Then they offered to teach us white girls to dance! We proceeded to have the most hilarious, sweaty and fun hour-long dance party, ever using their new EcoX Gear waterproof speakers! This fortified our bond, as they were bringing us into their world as we had brought them into ours. They realized they had something amazing to teach us and again, we were one in the same! We left them with gifts: Avasol reuseable shopping bags filled with Changing Tides Foundation tank tops, Cobian Sandals, Humble Brush bamboo toothbrushes, and lounge pants from Indosole. They were so incredibly grateful and so excited to have new gear for themselves. This was supposed to be the last day but they invited us back for a few hours one more day, saying they had a surprise for us.
We returned to beautifully painted shells and stones as gifts. We sat with the girls, got henna tattoos and massages and the girls braided our hair. We said very tearful goodbyes and promised to come back to see them and teach them how to surf one day soon. It was bittersweet. We have missed the girls every single day since we have been back. We have some promises to keep and cannot wait to see their beautiful faces again. Our lives have been changed forever through this experience. Thank you so much for being a part of it.