Surf Therapy Transforms Lives in South Africa: ‘It Gave Me a Purpose’ | Mental Health


News Team

Waves for Change is a non-profit organization in Cape Town, South Africa that provides surf therapy for children with autism and related conditions. The organization works with children aged 11 to 13 who are at high-risk of “toxic stress”, such as those affected by poverty, disabilities, gang violence, or a lack of access to mental health and social services. The children are referred by a teacher, nurse, or social worker.

The program begins with the children learning to surf with the help of their coaches. After eight weeks, the children are taught mental health skills and coping strategies, such as self-regulation, sharing, and mindful breathing. They are transported to and from the beach, and each session ends with a nutritious meal. The children attend one session per week for a year, after which they can go to an informal surf club on the weekends, which also includes free transport and a meal. Many kids take part in surf club for five or six years.

The organization encourages coaches to study further and helps them to find a job when their contract expires. Coaches have gone on to coach at surf resorts in Bali, join the police force, become gym instructors, and work at surf shops near their home beaches. Waves for Change now delivers its surf therapy program to 2,500 children every week in South Africa and Liberia. The organization also partners with 35 institutions in 10 countries to benefit thousands of children through sports therapy programs.

Waves for Change was founded in 2007 by Tim Conibear, who was inspired to start the program after moving to Cape Town from the UK and witnessing the stark inequality in the area. The program began with just four youngsters from Masiphumelele township and has since grown to reach thousands of children.

The organization has faced challenges with funding and finding the right people to administer the program. However, research has shown that surf therapy is an effective tool for improving mental health. A recent study of US navy service members with depression provided compelling evidence that surf therapy works. The study showed improved anxiety, negative affect, psychological resilience, and social functioning following program participation.

Waves for Change has been commended for creating a physical and emotional safe space for children to learn and grow. The organization has been open to evaluating, learning, and refining its program at every step, and has always listened to the experts.

The program has had a positive impact on the lives of many children, providing them with coping mechanisms and self-regulation strategies. It has also given them a sense of purpose and has helped them to build relationships and form bonds with their coaches. Waves for Change continues to make a difference in the lives of children in South Africa and beyond.

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