Waves for Change (W4C) uses the ‘rush’ of surfing with evidence-based mind and body therapy to facilitate a child-friendly mental health service to under-served and under-resourced children and young people in South Africa.
Founded in 2009 by Apish Tshetsha and Tim Conibear, it began as a small and informal weekend surf club for a handful of children from the Masipumelele township in Cape Town’s Deep South. W4C grew from voluntary weekend surfing lessons at Muizenberg Beach and went on to register as an NPO in 2011.
“It was evident that children were coming each weekend as it was a space where they felt safe, heard and connected,” says Tania Bailey, Relationship & Events Manager, W4C. “Through access to safe spaces, caring and consistent mentors and the provision of weekly surf therapy sessions, W4C is providing children with the skills needed to cope with stress, regulate behaviour, build healing relationships and make positive life choices.”
The sad reality is that for so many children participating in the W4C programme, trauma is a regular occurrence in their lives with these children experiencing an average of eight traumatic or adverse events every year. This not only decreases their self-esteem but can have a significant impact on their physical health. All of which are compounded and exacerbated by little or no access to much-needed mental health services.
W4C works with community stakeholders, local and international universities, and referral partners to design and deliver a cost-effective and inclusive youth-focused well-being service.
For children and young people growing up in chronic poverty in South Africa, toxic stress has become a recognised pandemic. W4C works with children (9 – 16 years). “At this age, the young brain displays the greatest plasticity, allowing for learning and adapting, after being exposed to adversity or chronic trauma and stress,” continues Bailey. “It is the best time to provide children with the coping skills needed to empower them to be able to make healthy decisions in their adolescent years.”
Waves for Change partners primarily with teachers to help identify those children with mental health challenges, providing teachers with the necessary training and support to help identify and refer children via a list of indicators.
Partnerships with social workers, healthcare facilities, and community-based organisations also highlight children in the community that would benefit from after-school provision with specialised referrals for bespoke morning surf therapy sessions.
Children attend a weekly 3-hour surf therapy class. Classes introduce participants to surfing via evidence-based activities that teach behaviours proven to improve peer interaction, development of prosocial character traits such as empathy, skills to manage behaviour and emotions, and skills to think and act independently.
After one year’s engagement, participants ‘graduate’ to weekend Surf Clubs, where membership is not time-bound. This allows children to grow up with W4C and creates the opportunity for unique longitudinal research that can build on our initial studies and deepen W4C’s evidence base.
W4C operates ‘Beach Safe Hubs’ in coastal communities affected by violence, poverty, and conflict, where mental health services are often stigmatized and under-resourced. Working with local community members it identifies, trains, and provides resources to community coaches to deliver this specialised surf therapy service. To date, it is operating in the following areas:
- Hout Bay
- Port Elizabeth
- East London
In the last ten years
The last 10 years have seen W4C grow to an annual reach of 2,000 young people.
“Our graduates show an improved sense of confidence, self-regulation and future thinking,” says Bailey. “This leads to improved engagement at school and calmer behaviour at home and amongst peers.”
As South Africa comes to understand the gap in mental health service provision, W4C has become an increasingly important partner for government schools, clinics and social services that now refer young people to its programmes.
“In the 43 ocean-side communities where W4C is active, we are seen as a vital part of the local social and psychological support system for young people. In addition, over the last two years, we have shared our coach training and curriculum manuals to help 34 partners launch their own surf therapy across 18 countries. Our work has been recognised by partners including Ashoka, Beyond Sport and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.”
Local acknowledgements include awards from Western Cape Government, Inyathelo, Impumelelo and, most recently, the national MTN Innovation Awards. Its research partners include King’s College London the University of Cape Town and Wellcome Trust.
Next on the agenda sees W4C scaling the work it is currently doing with 8 other NGOs in and around the Khayelitsha area.
“Together, we are piloting a child-centred approach that combines evidence-based psycho-social education with group-based physical activity to promote youth wellbeing. This includes activities outside of surfing, like soccer or skateboarding. We aim to deliver a service that has the core ingredients – what we call our Five Pillars,” says Bailey.
- Physically, emotionally, and mentally safe spaces
- Strong connections with caring coaches and peers
- Mastering fun, challenging new tasks
- Psycho-social education to cope with stress and live well
- Access to further opportunities and support networks
Coach Story: Amber Fredericks
My name is Amber Fredericks, and I am 20 years old. I was born in Cape Town and currently live in Lavender Hill. I got involved with W4C at the age of 12 years old as a participant. After I matriculated, I got the opportunity to become a Junior Coach for two years, becoming a Senior Coach in 2022. W4C has had an impact on my life since the age of 12 by creating a safe space for me. I had a caring adult mentor who was always there to check in on me and my feelings. W4C provided me with both the life skills and life lessons needed to help me think more positively, to have a positive attitude and positive thoughts and a better understanding of what mental health is. I am now a caring adult who is trying to make a positive change in other children’s lives. I am a role model and mentor to the kids in our programme. I love working with every single child and being able to witness the change within them.
Coach Story: Vuyisa Sowambi
My name is Vuyisa Sowambi and I am 24 years old. I grew up in the Eastern Cape and went to school there. I wanted to become a professional hockey player but, when that was not possible, I decided to relocate to Cape Town and live in Masi (Masiphumelele). In 2018 I applied for a job at W4C and was lucky to secure the position. My journey at W4C has not been easy. Having lost a friend in a river accident, and then having to work in water, filled me with fear – something I did not mention at the time as I did not want to lose the opportunity. For me, the first real impact of working with W4C was when I became able to face my fear of water. As the years have passed, I have become more and more comfortable in the water and can now, safely say, I am one of the strongest coaches. I have been with W4C for a total of five years and have no doubt that this is where I am meant to be.