In 2016, we met our new friends from Swimdo at a fundraiser in San Francisco. They told us about the problem they had identified in Indonesia and their mission to create programs in Bali to teach kids to swim.
We were immediately impressed with with their motivation and idea. Starting things in Indonesia is hard, and especially as an outsider. We know this quite well from years of slugging it out with our own brand.
What the Swimdo crew has accomplished thus far is impressive and a very positive thing for Indonesia and the empowerment of its youth.
Hope you enjoy this interview with their founders: Neal and Seamus
What is Swimdo all about? What problem are you attacking and what is your solution?
When we set out to make Swimdo, we did so because we saw a problem with a simple solution. What we didn’t realize, was the scope of the issue and just how many people might be affected by it. Almost 400,000 people lose their lives to it every year, most of them children. That issue is drowning. Yeah, I know, weird right? We had no idea, all we knew was that we didn’t see kids swimming in Keramas, where Seamus was volunteering and surfing at the time. When we started out we basically just thought it would be sick if we could share our love for the water with these kids that lived so close to the ocean. When we started getting serious about starting an NGO, we started doing some research and learned that drowning was one of, if not THE leading cause of death among children in the developing world. Both Seamus and I learned to swim so early in life that we didn’t even consider the fact that some kids grow up not knowing how to swim. It really blew our minds that all these kids could interact with water every single day and not know how to swim! So, long story short, we set up a charity, raised some money in The States and opened a swim school in Keramas where we offer free survival swimming lessons to children in the community.
What are some of the obstacles you have overcome in getting setup and running your program?
Well, the first thing was finding the money. We knew we had a pretty cool idea, if not a super simple one, but we knew we would need to appeal to donors and our personal networks to raise enough funds to run a pilot on site in Keramas. So, I was in NYC at the time, working at a startup incubator called The Centre for Social Innovation, so I had access to an amazing network of people that had done what we were tryna do, a super dope event venue, a ton of support and free printing services (Thanks CSI, love you guys). So, we basically just started making calls and convinced some volunteers to help us out and set things up for our first fundraiser. That event was attended by 200+ people, we got sponsored by Lagunitas, who are so generous it’s crazy, and it was huge hit. We raised $10 large that night and a month later, we were in Bali teaching kids how to swim.
What is it like to be Bule white boys from the USA running a business in Bali? Who is on your team and why did you choose them?
Being a Bule in Bali definitely comes with some difficulties and some perks. On one hand, if you speak even the smallest amount of Bahasa, as I did my first year here, everyone you barely communicate with will inevitably tell you that you’re smart and handsome, which is real nice. Very rarely do I walk into a convenience store in The States and after speaking 5 words of English, get told over and over that I’m really smart and good looking, and when it does happen, well, it feels sarcastic. Ok, it’s never happened, but if it did, I’d feel patronized for sure. On the other hand, being a Bule here has some drawbacks as well. For instance, every time I try to buy corn on the cob, the dude tries to charge me triple the price. Well, I guess that’s not that bad, life for us in the village is pretty awesome, over the last 5 years we’ve developed a pretty strong community and I think a lot of people are stoked on what we offer. That being said, when we set out to create Swimdo, we always had a vision of an organisation run by Balinese people for Balinese people. We knew that we would need to start the thing, but we always believed that if we could make the funding sustainable, we could hand the program off to people in the community that we trust to run it. So, that’s kinda what we’ve started to do over the past couple years. Now, some of our original students are our local instructors and coordinators, they train the students, oversee our programs, and run student recruitment. It’s been really cool to see them basically go from not knowing how to swim to where they are today, instructors teaching kids in their community to be safe around water.
How are you working Balinese people into your staff and what do they think of Swimdo?
Swimdo belongs to Bali. When we set out to make survival swimming available in Keramas, we also set out to create sustainable industry for our friends and former students. We’ve tried to be super conscious about the whole “white savior” thing that I think plagues a lot of well to do organizations that operate internationally. We want to provide a service that people want, and we want to provide people with jobs that they need. I think our local staff are stoked to have the opportunity to help their community while making a good salary and I know that they all believe in the mission of Swimdo, to enrich the lives of children through aquatic education.
What does the future of Swimdo look like to you? Any expansion opportunity?
The future of Swimdo looks bright, real bright. Every year we grow, we get more students, we fundraise more money and we set our sights on new communities that might benefit from our programs. Last year we started working with an awesome NGO, called Ransel Buku in Kalimantan, Borneo. Ransel Buku is basically a library and early childhood development center that helps to supplement the sometimes lacking government-run education system in Kalimantan. They’re so cool and the effect that they have on children’s lives is amazing, truly. So, last year, our team went out to visit their flagship creche center to run a 2-week survival swimming course for their students. It was a huge success and the potential for a symbiotic relationship seemed kinda obvious, they have kids, they all live on a huge river, and we teach kids how to swim. It was a super special opportunity for us and Ransel Buku just announced that they’re opening 2 new schools this year! So, we’re looking forward to running more programs with them in the near future.
Do you have any funny stories about this wild adventure you have been on?
Awe man, too many to count. Every year, our crew changes a little bit and every new team member or volunteer adds so much personality to the group. I’ve had some of the best days of my life with the people I work with over the past few years. We have a really good life here in Bali, there are always opportunities to make stories that we won’t soon forget. And it’s a wonderful feeling to know you’re helping, even though we’re still relatively small, we have a lot of faith in what the future holds for Swimdo and to all the new stories we’re gonna make.