“Stoke”: A somewhat abstract term ever so familiar to surfers; a sensation that few of us actually mull over, but which all of us have felt. Stoke may very well be what we unconsciously hope to achieve when slipping into 5mm-thick wetsuits and paddling out on a grim, stormy day with waist-high, mushy waves. In this way, stoke blinds us, lifting our spirits even when conditions are unfavourable, all in the pursuit of those feel-good moments. But if there is one thing better than achieving stoke it is sharing it – and those who have whooped (or been whooped at) out in the line-up will probably agree.
For Kelly Kingston, “stoke” is essentially another word for “happiness”; a happiness attained when she’s out in the ocean and forgets about everything, being at one with herself and the world. It was propelled by her own vision of stoke-sharing that she started Share The Stoke, a foundation focused on giving children the opportunity to feel the stoke through surfing.
Having grown up in wave-less Dallas, Texas, Kelly was one of those kids who despite being attracted to surfing always felt it out of reach. At age 23, a move to Maui solved the problem and Kelly began bodysurfing, immediately falling in love with wave riding. Although her involvement with surfing was inevitable, creating Share The Stoke Foundation was more like riding a wave and there being an unexpected barrelling section on the inside.
Yes, it was an accident really! After I left Maui I moved to Florida and started surfing on a board instead of body surfing. I would buy surfboards and try ‘em out. If they worked, they worked. If not, I sold them. I had an old Orion board I couldn’t ride for whatever reason so I listed it on Craigslist to sell. After about a week of no interest I decided to list it for free to a kid, but they had to write in and tell me why they thought they deserved it. As soon as I changed the ad I got about 40 emails with all these different stories of why they deserved it. I was excited I got so many responses and saddened that there were all these kids who wanted to surf but couldn’t get a board. At that point I knew I had to do something. I ended up buying three more boards to give away, and I gave away four boards that first year. The next year was like 20 and every year since has been more and more. Luckily, after that first year Firewire Surfboards jumped on board and became our main surfboard sponsor. Later on FCS and Sticky Bumps followed suit and helped us complete our offering of surf accessories for the boards we donate.
Our partnership with Firewire started with my friend sending them an email that second year we were donating boards. He told them what we were up to and asked if they would donate some boards to our cause. Luckily they did! That year they gave us five boards and nowadays they donate 150 boards to us for the kids. The day my friend Ryan Mackey sent that email changed my life drastically!
We got our official 501c3 in February of 2011 and at the end of 2012 I had decided to take a “leap of faith” and quit my “real job” and pursue STSF full time. The biggest challenge of that was saying goodbye to a guaranteed paycheck. Most of our challenges along the way have been money related but I think that is normal with most small non-profits. Our projects are funded in different ways: Sometimes a sponsor comes along and is passionate about a certain area and wants to do a project there, either funding the whole project or a part of it; while other projects are funded by events and fundraisers we do as well as some regular donors. I thought for sure that along the way we would pick up some big investors who believe in our mission and would help out financially but we haven’t found them yet. Our budget is so small that it would be very easy for a group, individual or business to jump on board with us and make a huge impact. Any takers? Haha!
Each project is different but they usually rank as a regular trip or one of our bigger trips. For example, going to Nicaragua would be a regular trip because it is close and a Maldives trip would be a bigger one. Either way, first we have to figure out who we are impacting. Secondly, we have to find out if there is a group there already working with the kids with surfing. Third, we have to reach out and make a connection where we are headed. Fourth we make a plan of what kind of event we are doing – whether it is a beach clean-up, surf lessons, surf contest, starting a surf team or just donating the boards. After that comes figuring out who is going on the trip, getting airfare, reserving hotel rooms, rental cars, etc.
Where we go and whom we impact gets decided in different ways. Sometimes people reach out to us asking for support for their surf programs. Sometimes we have heard about cool non-profits and NGOs in different areas that are doing good work and we reach out to see if we can partner up. And sometimes there is just an interesting place that we would like to impact so we will research and see if and how we can help.
One of our rules of doing a project with an organization is that they stay in touch with us and send us photos of kids riding boards. Some organizations are really great about this whereas other groups don’t meet our expectations. Groups that keep their agreements tend to get to work with us a second time.
Barbados is amazing! We have been there a couple times now. A few years ago someone had mentioned to me about the Burke boys – Josh and Jacob – and it had been suggested I get in touch and see if we could get them to do a project with us. Eventually, I reached out to their dad, Alan, and he quickly replied that they would be happy to do a project and give back to some of the local boys and girls there in Barbados. For Barbados, the Burke boys led a beach clean-up with some local kids. After that we donated some Firewire Surfboards and went out and surfed with the kids. It is always great talking with the kids and learning some of their stories. Some are just regular youngsters but others have difficult lives that are hard to imagine. We know that surfing for them makes their lives better and they are more fulfilled. Most of the spare time on our trips we spend surfing or hanging out with the locals, seeing the sites. By the time we head home I usually have already had an epiphany for the trip and get really clear on my vision for STSF and how grateful I am to be blessed to do this work.
We have met so many good people, people that I am still in contact with to this day. It’s funny how surfing will do that. I have many great stories about epic trips and things that happened, but the thing that I am most proud of is the work that we have done in Peru with the girls there. If you haven’t been there yet, please consider it – Chicama Boutique Hotel & Spa will take amazing care of you. Our first year there we partnered with the hotel and did a beach clean-up, surf lessons and a BBQ on a Saturday afternoon. When 100 of the kids showed up to participate I was blown away. This was easily the biggest event we had ever done and the kids were pumped.
On Sunday, we held a surf contest and donated some boards. As the day was ending we noticed some girls up on the hill watching the contest and we wondered why there were no girl surfers. At that moment we decided to create a girls surf team. Luckily at the time there was a Peace Corp volunteer named Carlhey Bolz stationed there to work with the kids. She stepped up and took leadership of the girls surf team and saw to it that they would meet weekly and practice surfing and workout together. We donated a few boards to get their surf team started.
Over the span of the next year the girls were growing by leaps and bounds in and out of the water. When we came back in 2014 what we witnessed was amazing: We saw girls who had gone from being shy and timid to confident leaders of their community. The year after we saw them out catching waves at the point on their own. They were self-sufficient! Now they charge the bigger days with the boys. They have definitely evolved thanks to the amazing sport of surfing – here is link to a little clip about them.
The foundation has definitely changed me. I have learned so much cerebrally and spiritually. With all the processes of keeping a non-profit afloat it was inevitable I would gain new knowledge, but my most prized possession is that I realized that it takes so little to be happy. I learned that it isn’t things that bring joy but rather moments, experiences, time with people and opportunities that keep me fulfilled. I suppose this is a great time to say thank you to everyone who has ever made an impact for us. Thank you! I appreciate you!