Therapy on surfboards brings hope to vulnerable children


Waves for Change is an organization that strives to provide mental health services to children in disadvantaged communities with therapeutic surfing sessions and thus change the children’s view of the future from hopeless to one full of hope, writes Maretha Botes.

Children in our informal settlement are eight times more exposed to traumatic events than children who grow up in affluent residential areas. Continuous and prolonged exposure to trauma and adversity develops into toxic stress with a negative effect on such a child’s development.

So says Nicci van der Merwe of Waves for Change. Waves for Change’s focus is to teach these children how to control their feelings, thoughts and behaviour, especially when they experience overwhelming emotions, such as aggression, sadness, anger, anxiety.

“They learn specifically through new skills how to calm themselves, and how to be more self-aware of their feelings and how they react to them. Waves for Change also gives the children the opportunity to form new, positive and supportive relationships with other children and other adults who care about them, specifically the coaches. Children learn more confidence, while having fun.”

Waves for Change started in 2009 as a small, informal weekend surfing club for a handful of children from Masiphumelele settlement outside Cape Town and registered as a non-profit organization in 2011.

“It was clear that the children who came to surf felt comfortable. We also noticed that after a while they started opening up to the coaches and started talking about their problems and challenges,” says Nicci.

Since then, Waves for Change has evolved into full-fledged, research-based surfing therapy. It is a low-cost, sustainable way to support children who are suffering from toxic stress.

Annually, the organization reaches and supports 2,500 children and adolescents through surfing therapy. The children who participate in Waves for Change’s programs are all from communities where resources are scarce, specifically health and mental health services, as well as a scarcity of general services.

In the Western Cape they work in Hout Bay (Imizamo Yethu, Hangberg), Khayelitsha, and Muizenberg (Masiphumelele, Lavendar Hill, Cape Flats communities). There are also two clubs in the Eastern Cape at Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and East London, serving the surrounding informal communities there.

Each of the children who participate in the weekly programs are referred by schools, social workers, the Western Cape Department of Education, as well as hospitals.

Waves for Change’s hubs and trained community surfing coaches create a safe haven where vulnerable children can be part of a community, learn new skills, build self-confidence and learn positive behavior, all of which have an impact on mental health. Research has proven that it takes eight weeks for a child’s nervous system to calm down if they attend the program weekly, but for the benefits that the program offers to fully materialize, it is necessary that the children take part in a longer term, which corresponds to the school term.

Nicci explains these children are exposed to trauma almost daily which includes gang violence, people being shot in front of them, hunger, substance abuse, poverty and neglect. “These communities do not have access to mental health services and the children cannot keep up without help and intervention,” she says.

Children between the ages of 10 and 16 receive surfing therapy sessions weekly for a year. After this they are invited to participate in the surf clubs on Saturdays under the guidance of the youth surf coaches. Many of these kids end up becoming surf coaches themselves.

A recent study was conducted on Waves for Hangers’ therapy program and its effects on risk-taking and interpersonal relationships among youth exposed to violence. The researcher made the recommendation that surfing therapy should be included in interventions that support children’s resilience and health on their road to recovery from toxic stress.

Feedback from parents, schools and communities is extremely positive, says Nicci. “Parents and teachers share with us that the children in our program are happier, have more self-confidence, show more respect for others, and have more hope for their lives because they feel part of a community. We also often hear that the children from Waves for Change share the skills they learn from us with other peers or relatives and family at home and school. Communities and parents have also told us that mental health still has a lot of stigma and judgment in the communities, and that our program helps communities to realize that mental health is not just about ‘sick’ people, but that it includes what social protective factors are in our lives are or should be, which helps us not to develop more serious conditions. “Mental health is therefore important for the overall health of all of us, and not just for ‘sick’ people.”

  • Visit the Waves for Changes website, if you would like to know more or perhaps want to get involved.