An Unlikely Program Is Getting Kids off the Street and Into the Ocean

In South Africa, surf therapy is changing lives.

(Photo: Waves for Change)

Oct 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

On the beaches near some of South Africa’s most crime-ridden and poverty-stricken townships, an unlikely program is making waves by getting kids off the street and away from broken homes, drugs, and violence: surf therapy.

Waves for Change is a self-described “surfing advocacy” nonprofit founded quite by accident by a young man from Britain in 2011. Today, Waves for Change has 16 surfing coaches working with 250 boys and girls from townships in three locations. Many of the kids can’t even swim when they arrive, but that hasn’t stopped them from embracing the sport.

“Surfing is very addictive, so it keeps kids coming back,” says founder Tim Conibear. “Surfing is also a highly challenging sport—it seems to appeal to kids drawn to risk behavior.”

Conibear, 33, says one of his first students used to say the high he got from dropping into a wave, the thrill and freedom of it, was similar to the high he got from smoking “tik,” South Africa’s version of crystal meth.

“Surfing is also highly personal,” he says. “A lot of time is spent alone in the water, analyzing your own performance. This lends itself well to a more structured, introspective program that encourages kids to look at how they feel and how they cope.”

Conibear didn’t plan to open a surfing school when he first arrived in South Africa. After university, he started interning at a vineyard, and, being a graduate of the Harlyn Surf School in the U.K., he would steal away whenever he could to surf. As luck would have it, a few friends from the U.K. surf school set up a travel company offering surf trips to South Africa, and Conibear found himself managing the tours for several years. As he became more familiar with the various communities around Cape Town, and with the terrible situations that many residents dealt with, he ran into kids interested in learning how to surf. They’d all pile into his old car and head to the beach, and before long he needed a van to make room for all the kids who wanted to go.

A Waves for Change fund-raiser in London. (Photo: Facebook)

Eventually, Conibear was joined by two volunteers, Apish Tshetsha and Bongani Ndlovu, who have since gone on to create surfing careers of their own.

“Surfing was brand-new to the community,” Conibear says. “Many of the kids couldn’t even swim. Apish and Bongs offered safety and security to these kids in the water, which accelerated the trusting relationships between them and the kids. Soon it was obvious we needed to develop a more structured program.”

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Back in surf school in the U.K., Conibear recalls working with kids with autism and how the relationship with the children and how they engaged with him in the water had a healing effect. He began to notice the same impact with the traumatized kids he met in South Africa.

“Kids face numerous stressors here on a daily basis,” says Conibear. “Anxiety is a common emotion that kids struggle to regulate.”

For example, one of the oldest and poorest townships of the country, Nyanga, has for many years been considered the murder capital of South Africa. It’s estimated that nearly 50 percent of children under 18 in the township have seen someone killed and that nearly 60 percent have been victims of violence.

This is why it’s no accident that surf therapy has also been getting attention lately for the benefits it provides veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. A recently released documentary, Resurface, focuses on how two nonprofits help soldiers deal with physical and psychological trauma. As the documentary shows, surfing and exposure to the ocean can have a powerfully healing effect on people with PTSD. The ocean forces one to contemplate something larger and more powerful than the self, while the thrill and risk of surfing satisfy the need for excitement. Meanwhile, getting into “the zone” on a ride can relieve stress, and because the sport is so physically strenuous, sleep comes more easily.

Conibear agrees.

“We teach the kids a variety of breathing exercises to calm themselves down and to begin processing their thoughts,” he says. “In the surf, we use the wipeout scenario. When you’re underwater, you start to panic and burn oxygen, which makes you panic. We teach the kids to count in their heads underwater, which calms them down and allows them to relax.”

As for the future of Waves for Change, Conibear thinks the possibilities are as great as the ocean is powerful and wide. The nonprofit has teamed up with the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape to research the impact the program has on children and to enhance the curriculum.

“Our goal is to share our curriculum and research with programs operating in the field of sports and child trauma around the world,” he says.