SALT LAKE CITY — After traveling back to his home country of Sierra Leone in December, Fas Lebbie recalls children curiously approaching a growing crowd in the street of Freetown.
The Southern Utah University student said he stood in the center of the crowd, assisting a young boy as he stepped gingerly on a skateboard for the first time. Everyone was watching, Lebbie said, anxiously awaiting their short ride.
"Surfing and skateboarding — I think for us it's more of a coping strategy," he said. "I think if these kids have something like that, it can help overcome some of the challenges they have."
Lebbie traveled to Sierra Leone with business partner Nick Jones and a few other employees of their clothing company, Fas Movement, and the nonprofit Fas Project.
The Fas Project trip served two purposes — to teach children how to skateboard and surf, and fight illiteracy by providing the children with books and pens.
The team brought thousands of toothbrushes, toothpaste, pens and books for children, along with hundreds of shirts. They also brought along 20 donated skateboards they used to teach the children and leave with them.
For Lebbie, surfing was his own coping strategy as a 12-year-old when he left Sierra Leone to live in Orange County, Calif.
Just last year, Lebbie learned the reason his parents and three younger sisters left West Africa, he said. His father was selected in the Diversity Visa Lottery, a special type of immigration visa where candidates are selected randomly.
"It's very rare," Lebbie said. "Thousands of people play — millions of people around the world."
As a preteen, Lebbie said he didn't know how to swim. He didn't know what surfing was, and he'd never seen a skateboard. He said learning those sports helped him adapt to the American culture.
"It was a way that helped me become who I am in so many ways," he said.
Besides surfing, Lebbie said the biggest changes in his life began when his father finished his education.
"Education was kind of the beginning of our life getting better," he said. "Education is fundamental."
It's these life-changing factors that Lebbie says he hopes to share with others, and not just in Africa.
"What better way than to take it back to underprivileged children around the world?" he said.
Jones said he's been surfing almost his entire life. He has taught surfing lessons for many years.
"We thought it would be a good place to go to introduce kids to the sport, and kind of light a new fire in a country that hasn't seen it before," he said.
Jones said it was great to get the kids selling drinks and food off the street for just a few moments and "show them a skateboard and see them smile and laugh and have something new in their lives that gave them a little bit of excitement."
By teaching the children how to surf, Jones said he hopes to share what surfing has taught him.
"When I learned to surf, it completely changed my world," he said.
Surfers learn to have a good work ethic and create a spiritual connection with the ocean, Jones said.
"It brings a whole new perspective on the environment, the world and wanting to take care of it and cherish it," he said. "I'm hoping that's what it brings to these kids."
During the trip, the Fas Project adopted two preexisting orphanages that house about 50 children and two schools with 90 and 60 students, respectively, and will provide the supplies they need.
Jones and Lebbie said they have plans to take the Fas Project to China and South America in the next few years.
"It's hard to change a whole country at once, but little by little, things can change, and it has to start with someone," Jones said.
Lebbie said coming to the U.S., serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington, D.C., and being around successful people made him aspire to do more with his life.
Going back to Sierra Leone and being with the children changed his life as well, he said.
"It actually changed my concept of why I want Fas to be successful," Lebbie said. "Because now I know I have people to take care of."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company