Surfers Not Street Children - dryrobe® Warmth Project

Surfers Not Street Children - dryrobe® Warmth Project

Surfers Not Street Children is a nonprofit organisation that uses the transformative power of surfing to empower children to change their lives off the streets and to help them on a healthier path towards self-sustainability.

Initially based in Durban, South Africa, Surfers Not Street Children introduced a second surf club and safe place for children in Tofo, Mozambique in 2018. Combining the positivity of surfing alongside mentorship, the organisation provides a number of programs that support kids throughout their development including outreach, live-in mentorships, and independent living preparation.

The organisation was founded by lifelong surfer Tom Hewitt in 1998, under the original name Durban Street Team, and was the city’s first outreach team for street children. The aim was to identify and support homeless children using the support of sport and art programs. Over time, it was apparent that surfing was a key focus for the children and became the identity of the organisation.

Surfers Not Street Children is run by a dedicated local team of social workers, surf coaches, lifeguards, carers, and administrators in a collective effort to help children transform their lives off the streets. The combination of surfing with mentorship has proven successful, with some children going on to compete in global competitions, such as Ntando Msibi who became a competitor on the WSL Qualifying Series. More recently, the charity has seen the incredible achievements of Mini Cho, who is pursuing his career as a professional surfer and Programs Director and Manager for Tofo Surf Club, and Sne Makhubu a professional surfer and major inspiration to other female surfers in South Africa.

Sne and Mini wearing dryrobes on the beach

At dryrobe® we're proud to support Surfers Not Street Children through the dryrobe® Warmth Project. Inspired by their incredible work, we produce a custom dryrobe® Advance where 100% of the profits are given to the charity. We also donate annually, as well as supply products to the organisation.

We last caught up with the organisation face-to-face a couple of years ago and we were stoked to meet up with founder Tom and two of Surfers Not Street Children’s inspirational ambassadors, Sne and Mini, during their latest visit to the UK.We talked about the challenges faced during COVID, why surfing is particularly inspiring for children on the programs, and how the perception of street children has changed since the Surfers Not Street Children first began.

Tom Hewitt, Mini, Sne sat around a table wearing branded Surfers Not Street Children dryrobes

What has changed for the organisation since we last spoke?
We haven't necessarily changed from two years ago in as much as the programs we offer, with one big exception, and of course, that's COVID.

We have a range of kids on the program, from street kids to kids living in so-called shelters, which is kind of street life under a roof. And then we have kids who are living in the area where all this is happening and are susceptible - so we range from sort of rescue to diversion.

So those kids living in the local area, their parents were just about able to support them before COVID. But because their employment was in the informal sector, like piece work, that dried up completely.

So we found that, whereas before the kids could eat mostly, we suddenly had to up our nutrition program to 200 children, which was way bigger than it was. That was a really serious investment at a time where funding was obviously difficult for everyone because of COVID.

As we did this for a couple of months, we realised that even in the best-case scenario and the pandemic died down, it's going to be so long until their informal sector work comes back again. So we realised that this program that we started wasn’t a temporary program during COVID and is now a permanent, brand new program.

If we're starting a new program, we spend like a year planning that program. But we had to do that overnight. So a brand new nutrition program had to just launch with literally no planning, no extra funding. Testimony to the staff, they did it really well and continue to do it.

Aside from that, during the lockdowns, we've maintained our programs. Obviously, at times, not the surfing, but the support for the kids and ensuring that they're in safe lockdown spaces, has run full steam throughout all of the COVID period.

What was the response when beaches reopened after lockdown and surf clubs such as the Tofo Surf Club in Mozambique were able to run again?
The kids were stoked. The only thing is, it was gradual. Sometimes it was on and then it was back off again - so it was frustrating. In Durban, the kids were desperate to surf and the lockdowns were really, really strict and the beaches were closed. So although we were open and we provided the support mechanisms and our emergency spaces, we couldn't surf. So there was a huge relief when the kids were able to get back in the water again.

Mini Cho - I think in Mozambique it was a little bit worse because there were a lot of lockdowns and beach closures - it's been open, closed, open. So for us, there are always restrictions on how many people we can have in closed spaces. So like a 10/ 15 limit and normally we're operating with 40 kids. So we had to really cut down and the kids could come two times a week or something.

Right now, the beaches are still closed in Mozambique, but the good thing is that we have a lot of support from the local community leaders and the police. So we have the authorisation to go down to the beach and work with the kids and surf, which is good for us. But, for the most part, it was pretty bad. We could go surf but we weren't allowed to go to the beach and were locked down in the houses. So it was quite difficult to navigate, but right now we're in a good place because everyone supports the program in Mozambique.

Kids at Surfers Not Street Children stood outside pointing to a surfer wearing a branded dryrobe® Advance changing robe

How do you introduce the work of the charity to the kids and what sparks their interest to try out surfing for the first time?
So our model is fusing surfing with mentorship and care. So surfing isn't the model, but it fits the model well.

We found that the high-intensity level of surfing, the stoke, the self-mastery in learning to surf, and the living in the moment of riding waves is really powerful and has its own therapeutic value. So it fits the model really well. But it's not like you send a kid surfing and everything will be ok - it works well alongside the mentorship and the care provided by the professionals in the program.

For the kids in the program, they love the idea of surfing. If you think about South Africa's history, during apartheid, Black people weren't actually allowed on the beaches. So what's interesting for the crew at Surfers Not Street Children, is that they're still pioneers. Any Black surfer since 1994 has been a pioneer because of the history. And it's actually quite complicated because of the baggage that apartheid has in South Africa. And the fact that your father or mother couldn't have been a surfer, their parents couldn't have been surfers because it just wasn't available. So Black surfers have had to find a way to surf them and etch out their own surf culture.

And I think actually for the kids in the program, there's something exciting about being pioneers as well. And the identity that they have being African surfers is actually quite attractive and is seen as quite cutting edge and cool. So that's played into why surfing has been so attractive. Actually, the first group of kids at the new pier, which is our local surf spot, were so pioneering. They really did change the racial demographics of surfing in Durban for the better and opened it up to other surfers who weren't necessarily part of the program, but wanted to surf as well and found it complicated to do so before that.

What is it about surfing in particular that can be transforming for the children involved and why do you think it can help to empower them to leave street life behind?
Surfing itself has a lot of therapeutic value. At Surfers Not Street Children, we are a team but surfing is not a team sport. It's a lesson in self-mastery. So there are a lot of metaphors in surfing that you can use when you're working with the kids in their lives, looking at the bigger picture of life and empowering them to transform.

We've tried to analyse why it is that surfing fits this model so well, as opposed to other sports. There are great football programs, for example. I think when you're riding a wave, you're forced for the length of that ride to completely and utterly live in the moment. And I think that's somewhat addictive actually. We joke about surfing as replacing bad addictions with a good addiction but actually, there's a lot of truth to it. The kids come in not only traumatised, but often addicted, and when they become surfers, they want to improve their surfing. Whatever anyone says, drugs don't help surfing. And so if you want to be a better surfer, you've got to do this without drugs.

As they start learning to surf, they want to do it every single day. And as they surf more, the attraction of going to the streets to get the other highs just becomes less and less. Partly because they're exhausted as a reality. But also because they know that if they go and sniff glue, that's so detrimental to their surfing, it’s going to hold them back. So we found that the addictive nature of surfing is actually quite useful. So surfing becomes a really strong tool as part of empowering them to be able to leave those situations of addiction. I think it's just something that they wholeheartedly embrace.

It's not something you go and do for an hour and then you don't really think about. Actually, they sink into surfing so much that even in their thoughts, it dominates.

Children carrying surfboards to the sea

How does the identity of being a surfer improve the self-image and identity of the kids and how does it feed into where Surfers Not Street Children developed its name in 2012?
When you're a kid living on the streets, society's words and actions tell you that you're the rubbish of society and you tend to internalise this. If you're told day after day after day that you are a second-class citizen, there comes a point where you start to see yourself as a second-class citizen and you internalise what people tell you. That's not just for street children, that's in any situation of oppression. When the kids become surfers, they develop a new identity and a new culture within their original culture, but they develop an identity within that just as anyone else does as a surfer.

One day we'd just been given a donation of wetsuits. It was a really hot day and we'd just finished some life skills program and I said, ‘Let's go surfing now’. So everyone ran off to get ready. And they all came down in their 3:2 wetsuits, and I'm just wearing boardshorts like, ‘It's like 35 degrees with a hundred percent humidity. And the water is like 24, 25 - you're going to fry!’

And they looked at me and said, ‘No Tom, you don't understand.’ To get to the beach, we had to walk through the areas where they lived as street children. And they said when we wear our wetsuits and we walk to the beach, ‘We're surfers, not street children’ So, in other words, they were seen as surfers and they had a new identity and it was a positive identity. So the idea of identity becomes really important to the kids because obviously, that brings dignity as well. And that's where we got our name.

Why was it important to develop the GIRLS SURF TOO Programme and how has it been received?
We've always worked with girls. In fact, our program in surfing started as a girl’s program and it was actually a response to the boys bullying the girls in the soccer program. And in the end, the girls said, ‘Oh, we want to do something else.’ And we had just been toying with the idea of surfing. So we started with girls, but we had such an emergency response to girls on the streets because of the situations they were living in, that actually the number of girls we worked with dwindled, which was actually a good thing. It meant that we were getting the girls off the streets.

Over time it became much more of a boys' project. It wasn't by design. It was just the way it was - there were fewer girls on the streets and more boys on the streets.

When we broadened into working in the so-called ‘shelters’, that's where we found so many girls. I mean the word ‘shelter’ almost brings a bit of hope but they're not nice places. It's street life under a roof where they have to pay minimal amounts of money and there are gangs inside.

The gang leaders who were running these places said, ‘Yeah, of course, you can work with them. We don’t want to see them having the same lives as us.’ So after we started, we realised that we needed a more targeted program around the needs of the girl child in these situations. So we started what we call GIRLS SURF TOO. What's really nice about that is Sne is with us today and she's become a real ambassador and inspiration to the girls in that program because of her path as a professional surfer.

The girls at the GIRLS SURF TOO programme on the beach

A key focus of the charity was to improve the response to the street children phenomenon in Durban. How do you think society’s perception has changed and are there any changes in how street children in South Africa are treated since the charity first began?
Big differences. Particularly if you go back to the era between when we started in 1998 and 2010. We haven't had to do too much advocacy around this in the last decade because people's views of street children, particularly in the media and the government, has changed.

As in many places in the world, street children were seen as an embarrassment to communities and almost portrayed as architects of their own misery. I’ve never met a street child who’s just decided ‘I want to live in the streets’ and leave a good home situation - the streets are not a nice place to live. So it was always a push factor. Even if the big picture was that these issues were related to the apartheid situation in South Africa, the reality was that communities were not supportive of kids on the street and it highlighted issues within the communities.

The media had a terrible image of street children. There'd be articles about major social problems in the downtown area, and there'd be a picture of a street child to illustrate the problem when that particular article was not even about street children, so they were the scapegoats for anything bad. So we did a campaign in the 2000’s where we got a journalist in Durban to write a series of articles about street children that would really look at how the media portrays them. And that actually had a big impact. We also worked with one of the national newspapers, The Mail and The Guardian during that time. And because of the way that street children were portrayed in those articles, it really made it unacceptable for street children to be demonised.

So, that's a really significant contribution that the organisation made particularly around media.

Also in the 2000’s during conferences in city events, the municipality was rounding up street children and dumping them out of the city because they were not a ‘good image’ for international visitors to see. Because it was a thankless task, the municipal police would do it very violently. This still happens in many other places in the world, it's not just South Africa.

So, we campaigned heavily for about seven or eight years around this and in the run-up to the 2010 world cup, we actually won the battle, and roundups of street children stopped.

It was quite a difficult time for us as an organisation because we were sort of persona non grata in the city with the authorities. But since that changed, obviously there's new personalities in the municipality. Now we have a very good relationship with the city and with businesses, and there hasn't been roundups of street children since. So actually that's one thing as an organisation, we can say that we really changed things for kids.

And obviously, we weren't saying that kids should just live on the streets. We were saying, don't use enforcement tactics for a social development problem, use compassionate tactics - the kids are the victims. It's not like society is the victim of these kids, making the city look bad. These kids are the ones who are the victims, so let's go in with compassion and love and change this scenario. And actually, that will be better in the long run too.

How would you like to see the charity develop and what aspirations do you have for the future of the organisation?
It's a tricky time to talk about aspirations for the future. We never liked to expand beyond what we know we can do really well. Because we've been running a long time, we've learned to make sure what you do, you do to the best of your ability, and then potentially you can expand. But you don't always have to expand. It's not about expansion, that is not the goal. The goal is to do what you do well. So we don't have any plans to expand further than Durban and Tofo at the moment.

It's not to say we wouldn't in the future, but it's been a very difficult couple of years with COVID. We know there's more need in Durban. We know there's more need in Tofo. We know that we don't have the budget to do the extent of work that we'd like to in an ideal world. So our commitment is to strengthen the programs in Durban and Tofo, for the foreseeable future. We don't want to think about any expansion at this time because in a sense it would be kind of irresponsible to do so. For now, we just want to make sure that we're providing the best possible service and if any expansion happens, we want the kids in Durban and Tofo to benefit from the program because there's still more we can do in those areas. And there are still more ways we can strengthen.

A group from Surfers Not Street Children stood outside

Find out more about Surfers Not Street Children and the phenomenal work they do here www.surfnotstreets.org.

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