Dr Dave Jenkins - SurfAid

When did you start surfing?
It would have been about 1979.  I used to play rugby and I remember this one game where I went into a ruck and realized that I didn’t have the aggression to play the sport anymore.  I told one of my friends I was giving it away and he invited me to go surfing with him the next day. He said it was a great sport and the only contact you have is with the rocks. He deliberately taught me how NOT to surf so I would learn the hard way. I remember that first paddle out in the middle of winter; it was freezing cold and shark fins everywhere in Dunedin, New Zealand. They were little ones but still sharks.  I definitely learnt the hard way. I remember once surfing in St Clair and it started snowing in the water and we had to run back in bare feet through the snow over the sand back to the car.

Have you been a dedicated surfer since then?
In my mind I was, but career and having a young family kind of dominated back then. I managed to practice in Taranaki where I began to surf reasonably sized waves. I lived in Gisborne for a while and then had a job in the medical school in Northland, so in my 30s I managed to take it up again.

What do you love about surfing?
I think surfing is the perfect sport or the perfect activity. It’s like how you have super foods.  Surfing is a super activity in that when you look at what happens when you go surfing, I’m currently studying quantum biology on the side and it’s the perfect exercise.  You have the stretch, you have the pulses of high intensity then relaxation.  New sciences are revealing this to be the perfect way to exercise, and you’re in the sea.  There’s some new science regarding negative ions mopping up free radicals in the body, so you’re anti-oxidizing yourself, and more than all of that, it’s a meditative state. There’s also something about cold water that is anti-aging and optimal for health. It’s a mind, body and spirit kind of thing. I have a very holistic approach to surfing and I think it’s common amongst a lot of people who have surfed for a long time. I intend to surf for as long as I can.

Do you have a session that is your most memorable?
Some of the sessions at Impossibles over the last few years have been really memorable. Getting up early in the morning you get this surreal silver tube from the sun, with this silver wall to surf down. I remember one session in E-Bay we had the place to ourselves, and it just turned on. The whole sky turned this fiery red colour, not the usual Mentawai red. So we were surfing down six foot E-Bay into this red glow. From a spiritual point of view, that is probably the most memorable. There’s so many though.

Who or what inspires you?
There are a lot of people who I directly respect and admire. I guess people like the Dalai Lama, the kind of people who have a deep understanding of the flaws of human nature and provide a way of life and philosophy to overcome some of those while still accepting that we are who we are. From Oscar Wilde, Albert Camus and Peter Singer who wrote the book ‘The life you can save’ about saving children’s lives in the developing world. As well as Gandhi and other people who have lead a life that is sustainable that we can follow.

How did you get into medicine?
I knew I wanted to be a doctor from a young age. My father had a bunch of books about Dr Albert Schweitzer and his humanitarian work in Africa and I remember these old brown leather, smelly books that his grandfather or somebody had given him and they fascinated me.  I was a bit of a bookworm and I used to get told off at dinner time for having the book under the table, but once dad found out what I was reading he encouraged it.  I was fascinated by the adventures he had in Africa and the music tours he organised to fundraise. I think that kind of drove me.  Also my uncle who was a general practitioner, I saw him as a mentor as a kid. Then I got really interested in psychology and science and happened to get into medical school.

I went on to become a rural practitioner in the Bay of Plenty and I got really interested in the whole change thing so I got employed by the medical school to do some trials of adult learning and change via up-skilling programs for rural doctors in New Zealand.  It’s very hard to keep rural doctors trained because they have to be able to do everything.  From there I got a job as an educational director in Singapore, they had seen some of my work and wanted me to go up there and they offered me a crazy salary working for the corporate dollar. My dream was to buy a yacht and sail the world for a few years, so that was my goal. I thought I would work there for five years then I’d have enough money to achieve my dream. Then I went surfing in the Mentawais and my life changed.

So what happened in the Mentawais?
That was my first trip to the Mentawais, it was October 1999. I’d seen all the pictures and by that time word was out so there was a bunch of charter boats.  I remember going onshore after a great session and saw these kids on the beach and nobody knew much about them, so I followed this track into a village and saw these little graves and some of them were pretty fresh.  They were like mounds with trees planted on them and there were heaps of them.  That’s when I realised that this wasn’t paradise for the people here even though it looked like paradise from the boat.  I asked around and the village head found out I was a doctor so he came to find me and asked me to do a clinic.  I told them I had a bag on the boat and for him to gather the wounded and I’d be back in an hour.  When I came back there were about 200 people there, it was quite alarming.  We battled along and saw some pretty gruesome things - one woman actually died that night - and I saw kids just wasting away from malaria and malnutrition.  I was pretty deeply affected and it was an intensely emotional afternoon; a lot of the guys couldn’t deal with it and had to leave.  It was quite a contrast between my luxury charter boat with perfect waves, Bintang beers and three-course lunches, and these kids dying literally 100 metres away. I had the old clash of conscience over the next few days whether I could sail away from this place without doing anything about it.  After a few days I realised that I wanted to do something but didn’t know what.  But I just jumped into it, left my job, sold my house, and was out of Singapore within weeks.

How did you decide to tackle the problem?
I started asking around the surfing industry about whether anybody in the area was doing anything or knew anything about what was going on, and I got pointed to Dr Manu and his wife Nita. They’re a very spiritual couple. He’s actually Iranian and fled execution and ended up in medical school in Indonesia and became an Indonesian citizen. He had been trying to help the Mentawaian people for years as a forestry doctor and was out there dealing with accidents and things. When I knocked on the door he said: ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’ It was kind of spooky because he seemed to know why I was there.  He had a plan already, there were a bunch of Mentawaian nurses who the government had sent to nursing school but they hadn’t employed them. So the plan was for him to train and support them while I went out and raised money. All these diseases were preventable and we knew that, so prevention was also a part of plan.

He was also setting up schools, like Mentawaian kindergartens that became very successful and he received a very large grant from the Luxembourg government. He called me after that to tell me that he was sorry but he couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain anymore. That’s when I realized that I would have to set up a not-for profit.  So I ran home to NZ and met with some mates in Gisborne. We needed 25 people to pay $25 each to become an official not-for profit so I asked my good friends Dr Steve Hathaway and Phil Dreifuss. If I could get them on board I knew we had a fighting chance because they filled a lot of the large gaps in skills and personality that I had. And they agreed, so we enticed our friends around for dinner and sprung it on them that we needed them to sign up with their $25 as members of SurfAid. We ended up paying a lot of it ourselves but that’s where SurfAid was born, at a BBQ in Gisborne.

How many staff do you have now, and how do you operate?
We have a small office in Encinitas, California, where we are registered as a not-for-profit, and we have two people over there. Our international HQ is in Avalon, Sydney, Australia where there are four full-time and two part-time staff.  In Indonesia we have 68 staff, including two expats, and most of them are in the field working with our communities. So we have 74 full-time staff all-up.

We never really had any money until the Asian Tsunami occurred in December 2004. I was back doing medical work and we were eating into our personal savings for years. Then during that time we had a successful malaria control program in E-Bay villages and we documented a dramatic drop in parasite rates. We took that to SIMA in Mexico where Surfer mag wrote up an article and we got support from the surf industry that really helped when the tsunami struck. We had a reputation of being the real deal by then so suddenly we were getting calls from the Australian and New Zealand governments as well as the surf industry asking how they could help. We went from about 23 staff to 160 in about six weeks if you include the staff on the boats we engaged. We did a disease prevention program up and down the island chain and didn’t try to do things we weren’t capable of doing. When the Nias earthquake occurred in March 2005 we had shown that we’d done a good job and were thorough with the allocation of funds so were able to expand again with help from the NZ Government. Then at the end of helping out in Nias after the earthquake, we had won a lot of respect from AusAid in Jakarta and had a really good relationship with the NZ Government so we won contracts to continue and expand our mother and child program and to start up an emergency preparedness program. So now we do mother and child health, water and sanitation and malaria control, we’ve completed five emergency responses to tsunamis and earthquakes, and we run the emergency preparedness programs.

What’s your role on a day-to-day basis?
My role now is down to half time and most of that is spent travelling the world spreading awareness of the need for our work and raising funds. We’ve always wanted to make ourselves redundant, which is how we approach our mission. The vast majority of our staff are Indonesian nationals. We’ve been very proactive and systematic in the area of empowering Indonesians to do the work as time and funding has allowed us to train and develop our staff. We work hand-in-hand with the communities with the goal of creating self-reliance so improved results in their health are sustainable. For example, in our mother and child health program we teach the mother how to breastfeed and give clean birth, which she then teaches her child, who then teaches their child etc, so it becomes a cultural norm and at least in that village you hopefully make yourself redundant and can move on to another village in need. We have just started a water and sanitation program in Sumbawa, our first time working in eastern Indonesia, where there is a great need for our work. We have a great country director now and a great CEO. And I have relationships with a lot of the donors who have become my friends so that’s part of my role also.

What do you do with the other half of your time?
I’m in the process of launching an optimal health and longevity consulting and speaking/coaching service. There’s a lot of new science, and a lot of “junk medicine” as described by integrative doctors. We are a grossly over-medicated society and some of the impacts of pharmaceuticals are not good. It gets down to doing a lot of work on your mindset and your diet and exercise while looking at the new theories on aging, such as keeping inflammation down by reducing stress, improving sleep and not eating processed  food.  The story we were told about eating fats is largely wrong, we should be eating a lot more good fats than the heart foundation pyramid tells us, and we should be eating less processed food and refined carbs like bread and sugars. We have a global obesity issue due to our bodies not being designed for these foods. There are tricks to training your mind and body so you can bio hack hormonal pathways to your advantage. I’m about to get a qualification from the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, so once I have that I’ll be launching a part-time career in helping people change, learn about the new science and how they can age well so we can be surfing at 90!

What do you love about the work you do?
I love the idea and reality that you can, with a committed and smart approach wipe out hundreds and thousands of days of human suffering with a series of low cost, high impact behavioral changes. A well-nourished child doesn’t die from pneumonia and washing hands reduces diarrhea rates by 40%. Children are dying, mothers are dying, because they haven’t been taught these things. Knowledge is not transformation, it plays a part but you need a behavioral change program. I’m totally fixated on being part of a team that helps people maximize their health whether it is people on remote islands or obese people in developed countries. There are ways to do it and they need to be coached and empowered to do it. I’m hooked on the idea that human suffering can be ended and people can have great health for the rest of their life.

Before I did SurfAid I was a on a marathon of me, myself and I, and what I have discovered by taking a risk and jumping into helping other people has been the best thing for me and that is available to everyone. No matter what you do in life, do some fundraising, connect with humanity, and make a change. It will change your biochemistry and you will attract better people in your life. Go to www.surfaid.org and find out how you can help and get on board. 

Where can we find you online?

Web: www.surfaid.org
Facebook: www.facebook.com/surfaid
Twitter: twitter.com/surfaid
Tumblr: surfaid.tumblr.com
Vimeo: vimeo.com/surfaid
Youtube: www.youtube.com/surfaid
Instagram: instagram.com/surfaid


Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on October 25, 2013
Categories: Interviews