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Surf therapy for at-risk youth with Waves for Hope

What is Waves for Hope and why is your mission essential? 

Waves for Hope offers a surf therapy program as a mental health intervention for at-risk youth in the rural communities of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Our surf therapy program runs for a duration of approximately 6 months and works with groups of 24 youths at a time. These young people live in vulnerable situations and are exposed to poverty, violence, abuse, and family breakdown. Our mission is to improve the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of these young people. We provide a safe space, caring mentors, the fun activity of surfing, and evidence-based exercises to build healthy relationships, develop coping skills, and improve confidence and self-esteem. Our goal is to encourage positive life choices and create role models in under-served communities across Trinidad & Tobago.

How do you work towards keeping the beaches as safe spaces for participants? Are there tools you teach the participants that they can take into their daily lives? 

Waves for Hope focus on both the physical and psychological safety of all our participants during our program. We want the ocean, surfing, and our program to be a safe space for all! We make sure our participants are physically safe by choosing the best beach according to swell size and tide, by using soft top surfboards, and by working with mentors who are trained in first aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). On the psychological side, we make sure that our participants are surrounded by caring mentors and we maintain a positive, encouraging culture within the program. This supportive environment allows our participants to relax and to practise and master new challenging tasks, such as surfing and coping skills, which will boost their self-worth and confidence. Our goal is that after our participants learned new coping skills and new behaviours within our program, they will be able to use them in their daily life, be it at school, in their home, or within the community. 

Why do you use surfing for therapy? Does the role of surfing go beyond just a beneficial physical outlet for your participants? 

There is so much more to surfing than just surfing: the physical activity is keeping us fit. Practising and mastering challenging tasks improve our confidence and self-esteem. And then there is the aspect of the healing properties of water, which says that being in or even just looking at water has a calming and relaxing effect on us. And finally, there is the mental side to surfing: flow describes a state of being completely immersed in an activity or learning experience that challenges us, for example catching a wave. And while being completely focused on one thing, our mind gets to relax and recharge. Combining all these positive properties of surfing and adding caring mentors, a safe space, and mindfulness exercises are what we call surf therapy. Working with at-risk youth living in under-served communities and being exposed to violence, abuse, and family breakdown, we found that the mix of surfing and therapeutic activities leads to an improvement of overall well-being.

What does an average day look like for a surfer in your organization? What does it look like for one of your mentors?

Our surf therapy program runs every Saturday from 10 till around 1’oclock. Each of our sessions focuses on a specific topic and includes a teachable moment, which is a lesson taught while having fun and being in a safe space. Teachable moments include practising sharing, communicating, looking out for each other, etc. 

Working with at-risk youth living in under-served communities and being exposed to violence, abuse, and family breakdown, we found that the mix of surfing and therapeutic activities leads to an improvement of overall well-being.

How has Covid 19 made your programs evolve? Have you been doing any socially distanced meetings or programs to continue your work? Do you still provide mental health support to those in your programs? 

Covid 19 has definitely challenged us in many ways! The regulations here in Trinidad have changed many times over the last few months and we are constantly adapting our program to the new rules and regulations. The biggest challenge for us is not being allowed to go to the beach and surf. We had to restructure our sessions and are currently holding workshops with very small groups at the local school. Focusing on our teachable moments, we replaced surfing with other fun activities such as games and art. Working with smaller groups has been very exciting and we find that our teachings are very effective and we can focus more on the individual needs of the participants.

What is the importance of an impact report? What should others know about your impact report and the information in it? *I encourage anyone reading this to view and engage with the impact report on Waves for Hope’s profile.*

Our impact report documents our work over the course of one cycle of participants (approx. 6 months). Our work is evidence-based and the results can be seen in the different graphs and figures in our impact report. We find it very helpful to do an impact assessment after every cycle, it invites us to reflect, question, and re-adapt and grow our program. It is also a nice way to show our supporters and funders that their contribution is having an impact on the lives of our participants. 

You mentioned you use an app to track participation, what is the significance of that information? 

We use an attendance app to collect data such as session attendance figures and duration of sessions. Besides using the attendance app, we also do pre and post surveys and focus group interviews with our participants. This helps us understand the needs and the impact of our program. 

Why do your surfers want to come and participate in your program? 

Living in under-served communities, there are not many leisure activities available. Having access to surfing and the beach is definitely one of the main reasons why the kids and youth want to join our program. But there is also the fact that our program offers an opportunity to get out of their home and community for a few hours every week. And it gives them access to social support and caring adults. 

The improvement in feeling close to others suggests access to new forms of social support, which also contributes to positive mental health. Our intervention also notes a positive change in self-efficacy, which is another important pillar of positive mental health.

Do you actively see your participants using the skills they have learned from you in their independent lives? 

The results of our surveys clearly show an improvement in overall well-being and also an improvement in feeling close to others and feeling relaxed. Feeling relaxed can directly relate to reductions of stress and improvements to emotional regulation for the participants. These elements can have positive impacts not only on mental health but on wider day-to-day functioning such as at home and at school. The improvement in feeling close to others suggests access to new forms of social support, which also contributes to positive mental health. Our intervention also notes a positive change in self-efficacy, which is another important pillar of positive mental health. We have been receiving very positive feedback from parents, guardians, school teachers, and community members, which supports our results in the impact report. Participants who complete our surf therapy program graduate into the Waves for Hope Youth Club, where they will continue with surfing, have access to various training including a homework centre, art, music, and life skills. This will give them the opportunity to maintain the positive relationships and skills forged through our intervention. 

What are some of Waves for Hope’s future plans, goals and hopes? 

Our main goal is to have our surf therapy program in Balandra running self-sustainable by mentors from the community, so that we can move up and down the coast and establish our program in other communities. We hope to impact as many lives as possible and to create a better future for young people in Trinidad & Tobago. 

How can the Nouvelle Vague community and beyond support these aspirations? 

We have a funding page for people who’d like to support our initiative: https://www.givengain.com/cc/surf-therapy-trinidad/

Besides the financial support, we’re always happy to receive new or used surf equipment or any kind of donations that could go towards our participants. 

We are also very happy to have a platform with Nouvelle Vague where we can share and talk about our work and impact. 


Learn more about Waves for Hope

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