"A lotus flower begins in the rough bottom of a pond. It slowly grows toward the light and, after it finally surfaces, begins to blossom." Nichole Paree DeWald, founder of Ocean Lotus Hawaii, says she's always liked the symbolism of the lotus -- how it represents the rise above rough beginnings.
Originating from DeWald's desire to help, this humble nonprofit organization aims to work with the underprivileged youth of Oahu through their three-part program, "Live, Give, Grow." On the weekends, you can find DeWald surrounded by kids, all of them finding free happiness in Oahu's warm waters.
"Live" uses the ocean as a healing method and lets the kids interact with one another and with nature through surfing, standup paddling or with outrigger canoes. "This is a really easy outlet for them and we were able to get surfboards donated to the kids," says DeWald. "It's something that's really easy to jump into and it's something that's always there for them. You really see a difference in their demeanor."
DeWald and other volunteers take the kids surfing in various places around Oahu. Kewalos is probably their favorite, but you can also find them out at White Plains near Barber's Point and at Canoes in Waikiki. The Beach Boys and Map Surfboards have made donations to Ocean Lotus Hawaii, and Surf N Sea on the North Shore also donates SUP boards for paddle sessions around Haleiwa.
Many of the kids have been part of Ocean Lotus Hawaii since its inception. "Some of the kids, their first time surfing was with us, and now they're better than me!" laughs DeWald. A few have moved up to shortboarding now, and one particularly talented youth is looking to begin competing in surf contests.
The "Give" part of the program allows the kids to be on the giving side instead of always just the receiving. They gain a sense of empowerment when they partake in volunteer projects. "Grow" is the after-school tutoring, mentoring and special seminars that are conducted by volunteers at area homeless shelters.
These three components of Ocean Lotus Hawaii's program are the ingredients that have made the organization so successful. "It's just someone there that's paying attention to them; it's as simple as that," explains DeWald. "A lot are dealing with neglect [and] abuse, and they know we're here for them [and] to work with them." The kids look forward to Ocean Lotus Hawaii's help and DeWald and her volunteers profit in fulfillment.
"Live, Give, Grow" is a unique formula that DeWald designed particularly for Oahu's demographic. The amount of free things to do in Hawaii is limitless, and with it being broken into separate islands, you can work pointedly and on a smaller scale. With more than 4,000 homeless people on Oahu (the highest concentrations being in Waianae and Honolulu), Ocean Lotus Hawaii has focused on two of the largest shelters on Oahu for the past five years: the Waianae Civic Center and Honolulu's main shelter, Next Step Shelter.
DeWald will soon be expanding her nonprofit outreach to three more shelters in these areas, with the intention of seeking out more in the future as well. The small, one-on-one feel of Ocean Lotus Hawaii is what this humanitarian strives for, as she believes that "you can make more impact in a smaller organization."
"Live, Give, Grow" helps to aim these underprivileged kids toward their future. Whether they want to go to college, surf or simply get better grades, the more Ocean Lotus Hawaii works with them as individuals, the more enthusiasm DeWald sees in their personalities. "In the beginning we'll ask them, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' [They respond with] 'I just wanna sleep,'" DeWald says. "It's what they see their parents doing. But as we work with them more and more, they have all these other ideas: 'I want to be a doctor, a volunteer, a cop.' We see a difference in that."
Ocean Lotus Hawaii exists solely through its volunteers, DeWald being one of them. She started the organization with the money in her own pocket and depends on friends and other philanthropists to keep it alive. Facebook has been instrumental in helping spread the word, as has their website (oceanlotushawaii.com), the shelter workers and churches. They participate in various fundraising events and even have an online store where they generate enough money to cover basic costs. DeWald has also recently started grant writing, which she believes will be successful for the future of the organization.
DeWald's passion for the youth is almost palpable and you can easily tell that her favorite part about Ocean Lotus Hawaii is just being with the kids. "I'm so glad they're enjoying this," she enthuses. "Sometimes they really open up and tell you stuff that they're going through and how going out surfing that day really made them happier." But DeWald says she feels like the lucky one: "You get that energy from the kids. They are so amazing ... an inspiration in themselves. They inspire me."
What started as one compassionate individual's vision to help the youth has become a fulfilled program, the worth of which cannot be measured. Ocean Lotus Hawaii gives Oahu's underprivileged kids a chance to rise above their rough beginnings, steer clear of the wrong path and succeed in life.