A Conversation with NGO Founder Neal From ‘12

A Conversation with NGO Founder Neal From ‘12

Three years after his graduation from Colorado College, Neal From ‘12 founded Swimdo, a child drowning prevention nonprofit based in Bali, Indonesia. Over the past eight years, the organization has taught more than 7,000 children water safety and survival swimming. Swimdo now employs more than 20 local coordinators and instructors, with swim schools across the country. 

We spoke with From about his CC experience, the inspiration behind Swimdo, and the skills he gained at CC that enabled him to build a successful NGO. 

Tell me about your Colorado College experience. What drew you to CC?

I had always loved Colorado and had associated it with skiing and the outdoors. As a kid growing up in New York City, my family and I would take trips out west to ski. I found CC looking through a college handbook that my guidance counselor at the time had given me, and I saw that it was in Colorado and that it had this weird thing called the Block Plan.

I have always been interested in alternative learning, and that probably has to do with the fact that my mom was always seeking alternative forms of education for me when I was growing up. I had gone to a small private school for elementary and middle school and then got the opportunity to go to a small specialized high school. So, I always thought of myself as somebody who thrived in small groups, and the fact that most CC classes were capped at 25 students was really appealing to me. I think I learn the best through dialogue, and the fact that these classes were small made me think I’d get the kind of personal attention that I had grown accustomed to in my other alternative learning settings. And once I investigated the Block Plan, and how I would only need to focus on one class at a time, well, that really appealed to me because I’ve never had an easy time multitasking or balancing a lot of different classes like I would need to in a “normal” college setting.

Is there a specific professor(s) or block class(es) that impacted you the most, personally or professionally?

There are definitely a few professors that stand out to me when I reflect on my CC experience, namely, Jane Hilberry and David Gardener. Jane was my intro to poetry professor and later became my academic advisor, and she absolutely shaped the way I thought about language and my own ability to express myself in an academic setting. She had this uncanny ability to create an unbelievably safe space where we could dive into pretty heavy subjects and express ourselves freely and safely. We were celebrated for our vulnerability, all of which was definitely not something I was used to, having grown up in the city as a wannabe-macho football player. 

David Gardener taught my Religious Poetry of Asia class and introduced me to meditation, both of which had a profound effect on the way I saw the world and myself. Up to that point, I hadn’t considered the possibility of examining the mind outside of a scientific context. The way that those poets described the world, their abstractions of reality, their somber and comedic verse, really drew me in and exposed me to a way of thinking I had never encountered up to that point. The meditation aspect was offered outside of the classroom context and introduced me to a practice that I continue to this day.

Did the Block Plan equip you with any specific skills that have benefited your career?

I would say that the Block Plan prepared me for real life in a way that I don’t know if other college experiences really do. I feel that in my life after college, a lot of the projects I tackle and obstacles I overcome more resemble the Block Plan than a semester or trimester system. I say this because often the things in life that come up, the big challenges and careers and projects that we take on, are intense, and they require an unbelievable amount of single pointed focus. I feel like in many ways, at CC, I was trained to focus intensely on a single subject at a time, to think about a specific problem and find multiple ways to solve it without the distractions of having to tackle other unrelated problems or subjects at the same time. I have always found that when I am immersed in a subject, or an activity, my mind adapts to that environment and comes up with solutions seemingly out of the subconscious to those problems or obstacles.

What was your most memorable block break or outside-the-classroom learning experience?

If I had to choose one, I would probably say my field zoology course with Brian Linkhart. We did all of this incredible stuff outdoors. I remember we did this entomology project where we needed to collect a bunch of insects and create a display with them after we identified them. We also went on this weeklong camping trip where we were tracking elk, examining cougar scat, angling for invasive species of fish, bathing in the river and all kinds of fun stuff. And I remember thinking, this is crazy, we’re camping in the Rocky Mountains, with a bunch of amazing people, sitting by a fire, and we’re in class right now. How crazy is that? What other college could we do this at?

Tell me more about Swimdo. What brought you to Bali, Indonesia? What was your inspiration for founding the nonprofit?

After college, I went to South Korea to teach English. I had really developed an affinity for Asia while I was in CC, and I had a friend who had recently graduated from CC and had gone there to teach. So, I went there and taught for a while and then ended up traveling around southeast Asia where I met my buddy and future cofounder, Seamus. We ended up working together as snorkel guides in the gulf of Cambodia for a few months, and that’s when he told me about his time in Bali and the fact that very few of the kids there knew how to swim. And Bali is an Island, so I was surprised to hear that.

When I got back to the states, I investigated child drowning statistics and was shocked to discover that just a year prior, the World Health Organization had identified child drowning as one of the top five preventable causes of death among children in the developing world. So that really lit a fire under me, and I started volunteering at a nonprofit incubator and coworking space called the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. I also started lifeguarding and teaching swimming at a pool in midtown because I knew that I would need some credentials if I wanted to make this thing happen. After about a year, I leveraged the network I had developed at the coworking space, and we hosted our first fundraiser. After that we ran our pilot program in Keramas, which is a small village on the east coast of Bali where my cofounder had previously volunteered. We started out teaching students from the English school in town and found that all the students were super eager to learn what we had to offer and picked up the skills really quickly.

What have been the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of starting and operating Swimdo? 

The most challenging aspect of starting Swimdo was starting Swimdo. In the beginning we were really shooting from the hip. I had no idea how to start an NGO, how to file for non-profit status, how to build a team, or do just about anything in the nonprofit space. But you figure it out, one thing at a time. It was like the Block Plan: I had a single focus to make this program a reality, to figure out what needs to get done and do it. For sure, there were things we could have done differently, but we knew that there was a need for what we wanted to do, and there were people that we could help by making Swimdo happen, so that gave us a lot of energy to research and iterate and build the foundation that Swimdo sits atop today. I would say the most rewarding part is knowing that we have made and continue to make a big difference in the lives of our students, their communities, and our local employees. 

It was always our goal to found an organization that was for the people, by the people, to empower the local community to serve the local community — and that’s what we’ve been able to do. And the coolest thing, other than being in the pool and getting to see our students learn, is something that we really didn’t expect. Over the last eight years, there has been this subtle cultural and potentially multigenerational shift that we’ve been witnessing where our previous students have come up to us and told us that their parents never learned how to swim, so they didn’t learn how to swim, but now that they’ve been through our program and see the benefit of it, they are going to teach their children to swim. That to me is really amazing and goes way beyond anything that we ever set out to accomplish.

What kind of impact has Swimdo made so far? What are your future goals for the organization?

Year-to-date, we have taught more than 7,500 children survival swimming and water safety throughout Indonesia. We started by teaching 20 students to swim and now we have more than 20 local employees on site in Indonesia helping to implement our programs. We have taught classes throughout Indonesia, in Sumba, on Borneo, all over the place, and we just keep growing … It seems the more people that find out about us, the more communities are inviting us to come teach in their local pools and schools. So, that’s exciting. We’ve also been able to streamline our programs so that we can put a child through our entire program for only $25. That means we can be more impactful with our budget, which is what you strive for with an NGO. 

I would say the future goal for Swimdo is simple: to grow, and to be able to offer our programs to more children in more marginalized communities throughout Indonesia. I didn’t know this before we started Swimdo, but Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, so there are a lot of children that don’t currently have access to any form of drowning prevention. I would like to reach those children and protect them from drowning. I also want to build up our U.S. team, hire more staff, and really start bringing in the kind of money that can drive significant international impact. Over the last eight years we have developed a model that is streamlined, proven to work, creates local industry, and is incredibly efficacious. All we need now is more support to see our mission through. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Whenever you set out to do anything, whether it be in the for-profit or for-purpose space, you always wonder if people want what you’re offering. To be where Swimdo is right now, with so much potential for impact, is really amazing. I’m so grateful to CC for paving the way for me to explore my interests, to our unbelievable local team in Indonesia and to all of the people that have supported us along the way.

Report an issue - Last updated: 07/07/2023