South Devon Wave Project; The Highs, Lows And Wipeouts Of Volunteering
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson, photos by Sofy Robertson and provided by South Devon Wave Project
I have lived in Devon for almost ten years now and during that time, I’ve fallen off my fair share of surf boards, but I must confess, I had never heard of surf therapy. All of that changed when I received an email from Katie Smith, Coordinator for the South Devon Wave Project.
With my love of all things water-related, I was keen to find out more about the South Devon Wave Project and what it takes to be a volunteer in the world’s first surf therapy initiative. Katie put me in touch with Issy Massey and Kat Chalk, two volunteers for the Wave Project, which began life in 2010 as a government funded surf therapy course.
Starting with just twenty young people who had a range of mental health disorders, the surf therapy initiative began. The wellbeing of the group rose overall and so the Wave Project formed into a Community Interest Company in 2011.
The concept of surf therapy in itself may easily be brushed off as a little bit ‘hippy’, and it certainly seems very Devon in its nature, but the success of the project speaks for itself. A peer review into the effectiveness of surf therapy concluded that:
“The intervention resulted in a significant and sustained increase in wellbeing. One year later, 70% of clients regularly attend a surf club and many have become trained as session volunteers. Parents and referrers noticed an increase in positive attitude and better communication, as well as improved self-management and behaviour at both home and school. It is concluded that the Wave Project provides a demonstrable and cost-effective way to deliver mental health care.” (Wave Project)
Due to the success of surf therapy, the Wave Project has expanded further than just Devon and Cornwall, with locations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and North Yorkshire to name a few.
One quick look at the website is enough to convince anyone that this is a project full of pure joy, with numerous photos of laughing young people and volunteers smiling encouragingly at their charges. The website explains “children tell us that the most important part of their therapy comes from our volunteers”, so it was on a sunny May afternoon that I met with Issy and Kat on Exeter’s quayside to find out the highs, lows and wipeouts of volunteering with the South Devon Wave Project.
If I hadn’t seen photos of Issy and Kat before meeting them, I am under no doubt that I would still have picked them out from a crowd. Clearly best friends and outdoor-loving spirits, Issy and Kat immediately opted for seats in the sun, already sporting that healthy glow that can only be attributed to spending time out in the elements.
Issy and Kat are no strangers to the South Devon Wave Project spotlight as they accompanied Katie to the opening of the new Rockfish in Exeter where Mitch Tonks and his team are supporting the Wave Project by asking customers to pay an optional £1 donation on their bill.
To an outsider, i.e. me, one would assume that Issy and Kat have been friends since birth, with Issy describing Kat as her “surf sister” on her Wave Project blog, but it was actually the Wave Project that brought them together. Issy, an Exeter University graduate who now works at Ashfords, explained:
“I found out about the Wave Project from a friend and went along to a taster session in Bigbury. I was standing in the car park in the pouring rain and that’s where I met Kat!”
The girls are quick to joke about the cheesiness of the Wave Project bringing them together, but the firm friendship that they have cemented through volunteering together is evident. Issy continued:
“We’re really good friends. It’s great because now we can go surfing together and go on lots of adventures.
“There’s not actually that many girls who surf; it’s quite niche and can be male-dominated so it’s great to go out together; we’re very motivating for each other.”
Kat, who is originally from Hertfordshire and now works at the Met Office, heard about the South Devon Wave Project by chance after meeting Katie at a surf girl event. Both Issy and Kat acknowledge that neither took the traditional route to finding the Wave Project, as many people come across the initiative online, although Issy and Kat are vocal ambassadors for the initiative.
Issy, Kat and the other volunteers work with a variety of young people through the Wave Project, from children with physical disabilities to vulnerable young people with difficult home backgrounds. To do this, one would assume that the volunteers at the Wave Project would have a background in child psychology or social work. Kat set me straight, explaining:
“People may feel panicky at the idea of working with children, but we’re not trained social workers or surf instructors. You get tuition with the Wave Project.”
“We watched a PowerPoint with different scenarios, for example what would you do if you had a child who didn’t want to go in the water? It helps volunteers get an idea of what kind of children they may be working with.”
Kat carried on:
“Then we went down to the beach and had a session in the water, learning how to push kids on to waves and how to track them in the water and so on.”
Although volunteers will be buddied up one-to-one with a young person, they aren’t thrown in at the deep end in their first few sessions. Issy explained that new volunteers are paired with more experienced volunteers for their first few sessions and two surf instructors are present for every Wave Project session.
So what does it take to volunteer with the Wave Project? I imagine, at the very least, surfing experience is required (and by surfing experience, I discount my many years of falling off the board). Despite both girls having surfed for years; Kat estimates around four years and Issy began surfing at Exeter University and then “really surfed” during her year in Australia; both assured me that surfing experience was not a prerequisite for the Wave Project. Issy did joke, however, that “liking the water helps!”
So ruling out any requirement to be a surf superstar, I asked Issy and Kat to explain what it takes to volunteer with the South Devon Wave Project. Issy said:
“You have to be quite intuitive to the child that you’re with. You may have a chatty child who wants to tell you everything, from what they did at school to the TV programme they watched last night, or you might have a much more timid child who doesn’t want to talk to you about home or school. You have to tread quite carefully and work it out when you first meet them. It’s about their experience; about what they want to get out of it.”
“It is for them; you don’t do it to feel good inside. It’s for the children to have a good time and overcome something that’s happening in their lives.”
“You may not know how much it means to some of the children; one little girl made me cards and drawings and even a birthday cake! That’s one extreme. I also worked with a girl who had selective mutism and she would say very little, but her dad would tell me that she had had the best time ever!”
Kat finished by saying:
“You need to be motivated, enthusiastic and happy to help. If you go in there with an attitude that you don’t want to be there because it’s cold or wet, the children are going to feel that as well.”
Issy was also keen to point out that volunteering with the Wave Project doesn’t necessarily involved getting in the water. She explained:
“People have volunteered in different ways; we had a couple of guys who came along to take photos, so they donated their photography skills instead. We have people coming along to help with the parents in the car park so there are plenty of roles for people who don’t want to get in the water.”
As we chatted, anecdotes and personal experiences bubbled to the surface, with Kat or Issy seeming to take it in turns to say, “Do you remember…” and recounting funny and touching moments from their experiences with the South Devon Wave Project.
With a beam on her face, Kat described Oscar, a boy with Down’s Syndrome who she has been working with for the past six weeks (who is featured in her volunteering vlog for the Wave Project).
“Oscar finally stood up in the last week; he was so excited! He would usually just say ‘good’ after a session but this time he said, ‘that was amazing!’”
With a laugh, Issy explained:
“I work really well with the little girls, because I’m probably a little girl at heart! I like collecting shells and sea glass with them. I recently worked with two girls, both called Lexy, and they loved collecting shells and playing games in the water.”
Kat pointed out that their work as volunteers isn’t just about surfing with the children, with Issy saying:
“If they’ve had enough and they want to play hairdressers and put sand on your head, then that’s fine!”
It is easy to imagine Issy and Kat on a beach in South Devon with their young charges; their enthusiasm is more than infectious and has me completely convinced that the photos on the Wave Project website (and contained within this article!) are a true reflection of the joy felt by the children and volunteers alike. Kat happily admitted that there are times when she has had tears in her eyes and Issy talks about the “amazing” moments when children stand up on the board for the first time, explaining: “It makes me feel like a proud mother!”
Working a full-time job and giving up your Sundays to volunteer is not a schedule everyone can handle, but Issy and Kat do not even seem to entertain the notion that volunteering is extra work. Issy and Kat are clearly proud to be part of a project that makes such a difference and share the view of one of their young charges; “Sundays have never been the same.”