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The Wave Project

Isla Kirk (2017, Natural Sciences)

This summer, I volunteered with The Wave Project at their headquarters in Newquay, Cornwall. The Wave Project is a nation-wide charity that offers free surf therapy to young people between the ages of 8 and 18 years. It is focused on those who are at risk of social isolation or exclusion from school.  This risk may be a result of having physical, psychological or learning difficulties, struggles with mental health issues, bullying, bereavement or being a young carer. Young people in these situations may find it more challenging to interact with others and may not have the opportunities or confidence to participate in group activities. The Wave Project offers an innovative intervention that works by combining the benefits of being outdoors, physical activity, the experience of being in the sea and by providing dedicated one-to-one mentoring. More information about the history of The Wave Project and its aims can be found on their website (www.waveproject.co.uk/about/).

Young people are referred to the charity by professional services and are invited to attend a fully funded six-week surf course. The emphasis is on sharing the joy and freedom of the surfing experience, having fun and interacting with others, all in a non-competitive environment. The sessions are adapted to the needs of the young people attending and there is no pressure to succeed. The lessons are led by qualified surf instructors and the volunteers contribute to the creation of a positive environment and make it possible to provide vital one-to-one physical support and security in the water, as well as individual encouragement and mentoring. The charity highly values their volunteers as the project would not be possible without them.

As I was a full-time volunteer, my role was varied and I was able to get involved in different aspects of the charity and be a full member of the small team. An important part of being a volunteer was fully embracing the objectives of the project, understanding the complex boundary issues involved, as well as being fully aware of the legal issues around protecting vulnerable people and children, data protection, disclosure and confidentiality.

Mentoring starts as soon as the young people arrive, helping them on with wetsuits (never an easy or elegant task!), taking specialist equipment down to the beach and participating in demonstrations. For people with low confidence or anxiety, even putting a wetsuit on or entering the sea can be a very daunting task. Initial contact is therefore crucial in building rapport and creating a comfortable and accepting environment. I would be paired with a child and when working in the water, I would be  stabilising their surf board, helping them select and catch appropriate waves, be close by when they ‘wiped out’ and would make sure they were safe and felt secure at all times.

A significant part of my role was to be sensitive to the child’s needs and aspirations and to adjust the support accordingly; we could be surfing, jumping waves, paddling or sitting quietly together on the beach. Communication skills and empathy are essential as praise and encouragement enabled the children to ease into an unfamiliar environment and to be carefree and safe whilst learning something new. Another vital aspect was listening, as some of the children had difficult circumstances that they would open up about as they gained confidence. I was able to meet children from a range of backgrounds who had been referred for many different reasons, including mental health problems, social and physical difficulties, and being a young carer. I think that having both volunteers and participants involved in a shared activity, appeared to make it easier for some people to talk about their feelings and some of the challenges they faced. I learned first-hand about the daily difficulties faced by some individuals and began to understand the impact these can have on both the individual and also their siblings or family. Through The Wave Project, I have seen that adopting a relatively low-cost, non-medical intervention has immediate and longer-lasting benefits for those taking part. It was inspirational to hear some of their stories and the progress they have made thanks to The Wave Project.

An important festival (Boardmasters 2017) in Newquay was a good opportunity to raise awareness with visitors from the UK and Europe, and to boost funding by offering activities. The Wave Project had a stall and I was involved in chatting with people, selling merchandise and painting faces! This is the first time I have worked with a charity-based organisation and it gave me an insight into how important it is to spend time engaging with the local community and raising public awareness. I also gained an appreciation of how sustainable fundraising has to be a primary objective if project activities are to be delivered.

A number of themes emerged from my volunteering experience.  I realised that in many charities, committed volunteers are an integral and central part of their operation and, like The Wave Project, would be unsustainable without them. The work also gave me an understanding of the importance of publicity, raising awareness and maintaining fundraising at a time when many charities are competing for limited funding. I was able to raise awareness of the project, in the hostel I was staying in, by talking to people about what I was doing and by providing leaflets. On returning home, I organised a cream tea event (to keep with the Cornish theme) to promote surfing therapy within my own community and to raise further funds. 

This was a very enjoyable and worthwhile experience for me and from the feedback I received, I believe that I made valuable contribution to the participants and the project. I am about to start my final year studying psychology so I particularly enjoyed being part of an intervention ‘in action’ and seeing some practical aspects related to my course. I would like to thank the THA committee as this voluntary placement would not have been possible without their generous financial support. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank The Wave Project staff for being so helpful throughout the placement - they are an inspiration! Most importantly, I would like to acknowledge the resilience and courage of The Wave Project participants. I learnt a lot from the young people I worked with and felt truly humbled by the courage they showed when faced with difficult circumstances. I intend to volunteer with the charity again in the future and will continue to raise awareness.

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