Surf therapy for communities affected by violence

Surf therapy for communities affected by violence – Be inspired

In a nutshell

W4C helps young people from volatile backgrounds develop skills to regulate their behaviour, build healing relationships and make positive life-choices by providing safe spaces, access to consistent caring adults, weekly Surf Therapy Sessions, and through connecting with parents and teachers.

What we do

Masiphumelele Township’s youth, like many other youth in Cape Town’s townships are faced with many socio-economic challenges in their lives which prevent them from developing into active and stable members of society. These challenges include: poverty, neglect and violence.

As a result of the continued exposure to violence, a lot of the youth experience acute emotional instability and become desensitised to violence. This causes behavioural or learning difficulties that lead to young people being socially excluded. In South Africa, only 1% of South Africa’s mental health staffs are allocated to youth and there is limited access to psychological support at school and existing services are not appealing to at-risk youth.

The organisation Waves for Change (W4C) was founded by Ashoka Fellow Tim Conibear in Masiphumelele Township in 2011. With the assistance of local community members Apish Tshetsha and Bongani Ndlovu, a programme was developed to fill the gap in the provision of primary social care and emotional support for vulnerable young adults growing up in South Africa’s most violent communities.

Unlike conventional psychological therapy methods, surfing was found to offer genuine therapeutic benefits that improved feelings of well-being. Where extra social support was needed, locally trained W4C coaches were able to offer the necessary emotional support and social guidance that oversubscribed social services were unable to provide.

Today, the W4C award winning surf therapy programme fuses elements of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Humanistic Therapy and Surfing to improve the well-being and emotional stability of young people whose wellbeing has been adversely affected by violence and abuse.

How we do it

Youth need new programmes they choose to attend, capable of addressing emotional vulnerabilities. Key components of a successful after-school program include:

  • Programme must be ‘cool’
  • Presence of a mentor that commands respect but does not ‘rule’
  • Creation of a Safe Space and access to nutrition
  • Create opportunity to learn new skills
  • Succeed at difficult tasks and be recognised
  • Opportunity to learn and reflect
  • Create a strong sense of belonging 

W4C covers all of these components:

  • Surfing: New to townships. Challenging, encourages introspection, rewards persistence and opens doors to employment in tourism and lifesaving. Proven to improve wellbeing of Military Veterans, Disabled Youth and Youth with Learning Disabilities globally.
  • W4C Beach Centres (Shipping containers) child friendly spaces youth choose to attend and leverage unused resources in ocean-side townships.
  • W4C Services:
    • Community outreach to attract most at-risk youth
    • Skills Training, Resources & Mentoring to mobilise community coordinators
    • Surf instruction including psycho-social services, competitions & lifesaving training as well as parent and teacher support groups

The programme is delivered by trained local community members who are supervised by an inter-disciplinary team of healthcare professionals. From an initial reach of 10 children in the township of Masiphumelele, the programme has been extended to Khayelitsha and Lavender Hill and now reaches over 400 children, teachers and parents annually.

What we have achieved

In 2015, W4C conducted two third-party evaluations in partnership with the University of Cape Town. The results are as follows:

  • 20 community coaches across townships trained and mobilised
  • (90% of the 20 coaches receive “great” to “amazing” responses from participants)
  • 40 teachers trained to refer 250 youth
  • (80% of teachers report seeing improvement in W4C participants)
  • 140 homes visited to evaluate service
  • (74% report improvements in behaviour & attachment to school)
  • Treatment improves
    • 63% over control for starting fewer fights
    • 56% over control for improved future prospects
    • 20% over control for decreased traumatic events
    • We have increased female participation from 13% to 30%
  • Of our participants:
    • 92% say they feel happier and more confident
    • 83% say they have learned more ways to calm down when they feel angry, sad or scared
    • 98% rated their coaches as GOOD or AMAZING
    • 75% of their caregivers see improvements in behaviour and school performance
  • Our coaches have received 45 external qualifications (lifeguarding, surfing, first aid and child and youth care)
  • Attendance has grown across all 3 sites (Khayelitsha, Masiphumelele and Lavender Hill).
  • Drop-out has reduced to 20% and of those who dropped out 30% have returned to the programme

What we have learned

Surfing offers genuine therapeutic benefits that improved feelings of well-being. We learnt that girls felt scared to walk to the beach and also nervous to surf with the boys. W4C listened to their voices and implemented the following:

  • Girl-only sessions were introduced at two of three sites.
  • To ensure safe access to the program, the organisation now uses bicycles donated by Global Bike through Beyond Sport and coaches now accompany the girls to the beach site.
  • We learnt that our curriculum was too long and too complicated. The curriculum designer reviewed it, focused on key concepts that align with our mission statement and runs for 2 cycles.