By the age of 19, Emi Koch had done more than many adults twice her age.
For starters, Koch founded Beyond the Surface International when she was just a sophomore in college at Georgetown University.
The nonprofit promotes and encourages — through financial funding, material donations and advocacy — other nonprofit programs throughout the world that use surfing as a tool to assimilate underprivileged, homeless, orphaned and at-risk youth into society, which, in turn, strengthens communities and promotes social justice and peace.
Throughout her life, the young philanthropist had no problem with her identity and knowing what she was passionate about. What she struggled with, however, was discovering a way to combine those passions in a meaningful, coherent way.
“From a really early age, I wanted to become a professional surfer,” she said of her first passion.
Koch’s father used to be a lifeguard at La Jolla Cove. Like father, like daughter, and when she caught her first wave at Hospitals — the break in front of the former Scripps Clinic — she was hooked.
“To live the life of a pro surfer became my biggest dream ever — traveling across the world, surfing in films and photo shoots and competing in world-renowned surf breaks,” she said.
At the age of 13, she competed in local contests, earned her first sponsorship by a local surf shop in Pacific Beach, signed with a modeling agency and was even the first girl considered for the role of Bethany Hamilton in the film “Soul Surfer.”
Just as her dream came closer to reality, a new passion swooped in and changed her life’s goals.
“My whole perspective on life was changed in high school by a particular day in class,” she said. “I heard a statistic that if the world’s population was comprised on a village of 100 people, only one out of that hundred would have a college education. That one statistic literally changed my whole outlook on how I wanted to live my life. If I had the opportunity to go to college, didn’t I owe it to the 99 other people in my metaphorical village to see to it that they got the same opportunity?”
Immediately following the epiphany, Koch began to take advantage of local community service opportunities and became fervent about human rights.
When she entered Georgetown University, she continued to pursue her passion in Washington D.C., majoring in international relations, attending lectures by peace scholars, becoming active in social justice service clubs and attending numerous White House rallies to support her causes.
Her love for the ocean, however, was still intense, so she took a year off school to consider professional surfing again.
“I needed time to figure out how all this passion for so many different interests was going to play out in my life,” she said.
Koch wasn’t the type, however, to twiddle her thumbs during her gap year. Instead, she trained dolphins and sea lions with the U.S. Navy’s marine mammal program in San Diego, then moved to Nepal to each English and art classes and live with Tibetan Buddhist monks.
It was that summer that she learned about Skateistan, a nonprofit organization that fused the founders’ passions for skateboarding and helping children in Afghanistan.
And it was then that the idea hit her.
“I immediately thought I could take similar steps by combining my passion for surfing and human rights,” she said. “When I came home, I bought the ‘Nonprofit Kit for Dummies,’ and Beyond the Surface International was born.”
Beyond the Surface International sponsors three global nonprofit organizations — Kovalam surf club in India, Umthombo in South Africa and Waves for Development in Peru.
The overarching mission of all three nonprofits is to use surfing as a positive tool to motivate disenfranchised children in coastal communities to live a healthy lifestyle while avoiding negative influences on the streets.
“The children have needed structure in their lives. By using surfing as a motivator, the children are motivated to stay off drugs and go to school,” she said. “The programs vary. In Durban, South Africa, Umthombo’s first challenge is to get children off the streets and treat their addiction to sniffing solvents by having the children live in a structured youth center. The surfing program motivates the children to stay off the streets and better themselves. Thereafter, the children can return to school.”
Koch said Umthombo has reintegrated waves of street children back into society and made them successful patrons of their communities. Some of the children have even grown up to become lifeguards and diving instructors.
The founders of the nonprofits she sponsors — Tom Hewitt, Dave Aabo and Jelle Rigole — are the true heroes, she said.
“They are such incredible individuals and I am so blessed to know them and work with them,” she said. “They have inspired me and I hope to start my own program in the future.”
There are others, too, she said, who help make her organization possible.
“My board of directors — aka mom and dad — have been some of my biggest supporters from the start,” she said. “When I started my nonprofit, I came forward with my idea to some local businesses. [My parents] believed in me, my ideas and goals, and had faith in the mission of Beyond the Surface International.”
She said she owes much of her organization’s success to businesses that have helped her along the way, including Sun Diego Boardshops, Surfindian in Pacific Beach, Vans shoes and Chuck Patton from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, who created a Beyond the Surface International coffee blend and donated a portion of its proceeds to her initiative.
Koch is currently part of the Billabong Girls Team as a lifestyle rider, has traveled to Peru and South Africa to meet the children in the surf programs and personally deliver donations, and is currently working with an apparel company to design clothing for retail outlets to support the nonprofit. After she graduates, she hopes to travel to India to visit and volunteer at the sponsored program in Kovalam.
For more information or to donate to Koch’s nonprofit, visit www.beyondthesurfaceinternational.org.