How The Wave Project is Transforming Young Lives Through Surf Therapy

We can only help 2,500 people a year nationally but will be able to do so much more with your help

Article By Olivier Vergnault Senior Reporter at Cornwall Live

Group photograph of Rory and The Wave Project team at Croyde beach.
For many years growing up as a child with Down Syndrome in West Cornwall, Rory suffered from relentless bullying and exclusion. To his mum’s own admission, Rory was “broken”. It was the healing power of the ocean which brought him back.

“The abuse that has happened to Rory is not for describing here as it was relentless until eventually Rory was broken,” his mum Jeannette explained. “He lost all of his language, walked with his fists clenched, was terrified of everyone and retreated into himself. We felt we had lost him.

“The Wave Project has brought Rory alive in a way that we have never seen before. Over the six weeks his whole demeanour has changed, he feels accepted, relaxed, he’s laughing and engaging all of the time. It is unbelievable.

“He is talking about his future, getting married, living a life of his own. It is miraculous . This is life changing and as the surf club starts and Rory has a reason for being, it’s only going to get better. I can literally see him rewiring in front of my eyes.”

“Finding inclusion – real inclusion – is vanishingly rare, so rare in fact that we haven’t found it anywhere except for at The Wave Project. That is the only place in 24 years where Rory has been able to be Rory without being hurt.

As we sit among foamy surfboards used by The Wave Project at its base in Newquay, a stone throw away from Towan Beach, new CEO Ramon Van de Velde proudly shares Rory’s experience. He tells us of another young adult, a 17-year-old girl, whose life has also been transformed thanks to the power of surf therapy – so much so that she is now training to become a volunteer coach to help others like her recover from whatever trauma or mental health issue they have had to face.

“I’m so proud of her,” Ramon said. “This young woman started here eight years ago. She had significant mental health issues but now she is a confident young adult who’s so keen to help other young people who are now what she used to be. These kids relate to her because she understands what they are going through.”

The Wave Project was set up 13 years ago by Joe Taylor, a former political worker for former MP Julia Goldworthy after the Lib Dem MP for Camborne and Falmouth lost her seat in the 2010 General Election. When he lost his political job, Joe had already been working on a different disability surfing project out of Newquay whereby disabled children would get help to go into the water and would invariably come out with the biggest smile on their faces.

With a small grant from the Cornwall Partnership Trust he ran a pilot working with 20 local children from Cornwall and found that many of those who took part, who had suffered from anxiety, were withdrawn, did not communicate well and were negative about themselves and their outlook for the future, came out transformed.

The Wave Project was truly born after that. It has since grown into a £1.7m sport for change national charity, supporting thousands of young people every year. The Newquay-based organisation now employs 40 staff around the UK, has 1,700 volunteers and continues to help about 2,500 children and young adult with mental and physical issues a year.

While many of the volunteers and staff are surfers, you don’t need to be a surfer to help nor does The Wave Project aim to turn every referral child into the next Kelly Slater. In fact, new CEO Ramon admitted not being a surfer and only learned a few weeks before taking up his new job.

For him, it is all about the proven healing powers of nature, whether it is walks in the woods or being on the beach or in the sea. “I grew up on the beach in Holland,” Ramon said. “Just on the other side of dunes. I was on the beach every day of the year, swimming in the sea, windsurfing, having campfires. As a family we’d always been on camping holidays in the mountains or on the coast. I spent a lot of time in nature, in the forest or on the beach.”

Ramon first arrived in the UK in 2001 where he started working providing stage security management at concerts for Madonna, U2 or the Rolling Stones in places like Hyde Park or Earl’s Court. He moved to the UK permanently a year later, working in London and Cardiff before moving to the Westcountry in 2004, when a job came up at the Plymouth Pavilions.

Inspired by the work done at Eden, he joined the famous Cornish attraction near St Austell in 2010 and stayed until 2014 when an opportunity arose to become the general manager of St Michael’s Mount. He became the chief executive of St Aubyn Estate, a role he left in 2020 to join the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

“I loved the work Heligan did connecting people with nature, past, present and future,” Ramon added. “But it was a personal experience which motivated me to look into green and blue health.”

In September that year, his daughter, who was 12 at the time, started having really bad tics to the point of having seizures. Ramon’s daughter was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition which can be truly debilitating. “We’ve certainly been on a massive journey with her. We learned a lot about children struggling with mental health issues.”

He said that with the help of art therapy, professional help from a clinical psychologist and spending more and more time in nature, especially the woods around Lostwithiel where his family lives, interacting with nature, looking at animals and plants and minerals his daughter was able to turn a corner and her mental health improved drastically.

“She’s doing very well now,” Ramon added. “She still has anxiety and Tourette’s but she’s doing great thanks to connecting with nature. After all the work we did at Heligan trying to connect people with nature and working on the benefits of green health I was really keen to do something similar with blue health. Seeing my daughter having this help made me more driven to help more children improve their mental health.”

The children who come to The Wave Project have all been referred to the charity through organisations like the NHS, Cornwall Council, schools and Cornwall’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Many have anxiety, or like Rory, do not trust adults or other people in general.

“For kids with anxiety, coming to the beach can be a big step,” Ramon said. “Our aim is not to teach them to surf. We’re not a surf school. But we want to help them through surf therapy. Some kids are so anxious when they arrive that they don’t want to do anything or just want to build sand castles. That’s perfectly fine. Others will jump into the sea straight away. It’s all about helping them build their confidence.”

During the six weeks sessions, there will often be a ratio of one or more adult volunteers per child as well as lifeguards and instructors. For adaptive surfing the ratio can be six to eight adults for one child. But one thing for sure, everyone there will be encouraging at every step of the way.

“It is about positivity, being together and everyone there supporting the children,” Ramon added. “The children all feel great because they all achieve something whatever it is and because of the encouragement they receive. We know surf therapy works. It is being used for veterans and even by Devon and Cornwall Police, that’s why we want to do more.”

There have been an increasing number of scientific studies done which have proved the mental and physical health benefits of being in the sea and in nature. In fact, the former The Wave Project project coordinator in Scotland is now working on just that, having obtained a PhD in surf therapy.

That’s why the charity constantly needs to find more revenue streams and why it needs to evidence-base its worth. For more funding means more children being helped, not just in Cornwall where it is based and known, but beyond – and not just in coastal communities too.

Ramon said there is a Wave Project based in non coastal communities like London or The Wave pool in Bristol with more coming on all over the country as more funding gets unlocked. There are three phases to the project. The first phase involves a block of six-week surf therapy sessions that children are referred for by professionals. While it costs The Wave Project £850 per child to run a six-week surf therapy course, it is free for children and their parents.

Phase two is the continuation of the project through the surf club. Children who have been through the project can join the surf club and can progress their surfing with The Wave Project’s volunteers and children like them whom they know. The third phase is the training of young adults to become the next generation of volunteers.

The charity has received NHS funding over the years as well as from individuals and businesses. Lately it has partnered with recycling company SUEZ to find ways to clean, repair or upcycle unwanted wetsuits. As Ramon explained, neoprene is a notoriously difficult product to recycle and it will not biodegrade so will continue to line landfill sites around the world for generations.

He said: “Donated wetsuits are cleaned up and repaired and sold really cheaply in our shop. If they are too damaged, they will be turned into yoga mats instead. The benefits are three fold. It helps generate an income for the Wave Project through our shop, we make wetsuit economically more accessible for people who want to go in the sea and it’s better for the environment as we reduce the number of wetsuits going to landfill.