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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Can surfing lift all boats in one impoverished Salvadoran community?

Why We Wrote This

El Salvador has been gaining a bigger and bigger reputation for violence. But in one part of the country, Marcelo Castellanos has been central to an innovative effort to counter the challenges.

Courtesy of Puro Surf
Marcelo Castellanos, who provided the inspiration for Puro Surf Hotel and Performance Academy, teaches a boy to surf.

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El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. On the plus side, it also has some of the best “point breaks” (a surfing term). Marcelo Castellanos has had a vision for how to use the waves as a way to attract outside assistance for the region’s challenges. And so Puro Surf Hotel and Performance Academy opened last year in the Salvadoran town of El Zonte. There’s also now a program of extracurricular activities at the local public school, using revenue from the surfing operation. The program was rolled out by Mr. Castellanos and the nonprofit Glasswing International. The classes are showing results at a school where in some years roughly 50 students drop out, according to Saúl Díaz, the school’s curriculum director. Last year was the first in his four years there that no students dropped out, something he attributes to the programs offered by Puro Surf and Glasswing. Says one parent, Maria Cristina Menjivar de Guerra: “There are older kids that now, you don’t see them on the street anymore because they’re entertained.”

Marcelo Castellanos was 15 years old when he first came up with an idea about how to help the impoverished communities on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, where he was spending all his free time surfing.

El Salvador was already recognized for having some of the best “point breaks” in the world, to use a surfing term. And surfers in pursuit of the perfect wave weren’t put off by the country’s recent civil war. So why not use the waves as a way to attract outside assistance? The young Mr. Castellanos emailed an international surfing organization and asked if he could start a local chapter. The group responded politely but asked if he had first spoken to his parents, he recalls with a laugh.

More than a decade later, that once-precocious teen is still up for the challenge of bringing visitors to a country that now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. This time, he has investors betting that world-class waves, superior surfing instruction, and Instagram-ready accommodations will prove irresistible to surfers and travelers.

And so Puro Surf Hotel and Performance Academy opened this past November in the Salvadoran town of El Zonte. But the idea doesn’t stop there. Together with Glasswing International, a nonprofit organization that supports community development projects throughout Central America, Castellanos has rolled out a program of extracurricular activities for students and parents at the local public school. The activities address priorities outlined by residents, and they’re funded with revenue from the surfing operation.

“I’ve always had a vision of doing something positive for my country,” Castellanos says. “I don’t want to leave anyone behind.”

Community involvement

The son of a locally prominent newscaster, Castellanos grew up privileged in the capital city, San Salvador, but was deeply affected by the poverty he encountered 45 minutes away.

El Zonte, however, doesn’t suffer directly from the gang violence that buffets so much of El Salvador. Still, the lack of opportunities here pushes youths to leave school and home, and makes them vulnerable.

Puro Surf sits atop a cliff whose base is a black-sand beach. Ten-foot waves consistently curl into a perfect hollow that seems to peel its way down the length of the beachfront before crashing with a roar on the rocky shore. Before even breaking ground on the hotel, Castellanos and his business partner, Pedro Querejeta, were pushing ahead with a plan to integrate the community into their venture.

“The social part was new to me,” says Mr. Querejeta, a property developer originally from Miami. “But I knew from experience there’s no business that’s successful if it’s not supported by the community.”

To that end, Puro Surf sought the expertise of Glasswing. The activities that have resulted at the school include clubs for students focused on English, robotics, and musical theater, and financial planning classes for adults.

A lot of businesses manage to tuck the word “sustainable” into their mission statement, but “these guys are all in,” says Celina de Sola, one of Glasswing’s founders. Also, other businesses approach community development as something charitable, and so it’s the first thing they cut from their budget, she says. For Puro Surf, it’s strategic.

A robotic dog project

During a recent visit to the school, the well-equipped computer lab is an inviting 30 degrees cooler than the dense heat outside. Five teenage boys huddle over a robotic dog they’ve built from Lego Mindstorms parts. They trained the electronic puppy to beg, but that was just for fun. Their focus is on a regional competition coming up.

Glasswing’s extracurricular clubs in El Salvador have been shown to have a “statistically significant positive impact” for students, including improved math and science scores and lower absenteeism, according to a study by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in 2016. And the classes here are showing results, too – a big deal for a school where in some years roughly 50 students drop out, according to Saúl Díaz, the school’s curriculum director. Last year was the first in his four years there that no students dropped out, something he attributes to the programs offered by Puro Surf and Glasswing. “If they want to join the clubs, they have to be in school,” Mr. Díaz says.

Nearby, Maria Cristina Menjivar de Guerra beams as her 7-year-old son stands on an outdoor stage taking cues from the older girls in his glee club. Ms. Menjivar says the school has never had fun activities for children before. And the clubs keep them busy.

“There are older kids that now, you don’t see them on the street anymore because they’re entertained,” she says.

Clubs for both mother and daughter

Menjivar singles out programs for girls and stay-at-home mothers like herself. The girls club, she says, gives her 14-year-old daughter space to bring up issues that are perhaps too awkward to talk about at home. Menjivar started attending the finance club, which inspired her to start a small business selling quail eggs. She’s hoping to make Puro Surf a client since it tries to locally source the produce and seafood served in Covana Kitchen, its open-air restaurant.

These efforts make a difference, Menjivar says. “The biggest worry here is a lack of jobs. The country is in bad shape economically,” she says. Her daughter hopes to improve her language skills with practice in the English club and to be able to find a job in El Zonte in tourism.

If Castellanos has his way, by the time Menjivar’s daughter is looking for a job, El Zonte and the surrounding beaches will be a tourism magnet and an official stop on the World Surf League’s professional circuit. The surf academy is already gaining interest from pro surfers who are seduced not only by 300-foot hollows but also by how easy it is to get to El Zonte. WSL commentator Rosy Hodge told her nearly 70,000 Instagram followers that she had an “epic” time here.

“We’re trying to raise the standards of what can be done in El Salvador,” says Castellanos. “Through surfing, everyone will grow.”

For more, visit purosurf.com.

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