Teaching Liberian kids how to surf is simply a means to a different end for Waves for Change. Sure, surfing can be fun, but the real purpose, as their name implies, is to change lives in positive, meaningful ways.

The program mentors kids through swimming and surfing in Harper, Liberia. It gives kids the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the place they live while showing them examples of strong leaders and teaching them how to work together and control their fear, anger and disappointments. The year-long program begins with learning how to swim and be safe in the ocean waves and eventually work up to surfing. MAF partners with Waves for Change by transporting staff to Harper from the capital city of Monrovia.

“Our goal is to get kids from 9 years old to 20 in terms of behavior change, in terms of building free space, building a sense of belonging, and to teach them how to surf on the ocean,” says Emmed Ross, Waves for Change manager in Harper. “It’s important for kids because coming from our background, you’ve been through a lot of problems in the war. Kids are devastated. We’re trying to bring them together to take that negative thinking of their mind…and make them more helpful to society, and the people.”

The Beginning

Tim Conibear founded the organization Waves for Change in South Africa in 2011 for kids in some of the roughest townships in the eastern Cape, teaching them how to overcome fear and stress, how to deal with the troubles in their lives, and give them hope – all through learning the skills of surfing in a year-long program. It grew from five kids, a car and some surfboards, to 18 coaches and 250 children by 2016. The organization has won several awards, including the prestigious Laureus Sport for Good.

The Liberian program took months of preparation via emails. Tim and his partner Matt Mattila made their first trip to Liberia in February 2017 to meet with their contacts at Tubman University in Harper where the program would later be implemented. Harper sits at the southern-most tip of the country on the Atlantic Ocean offering the necessary water, plus a university with students from the Peer Counseling program that would train as coaches.

“We flew with MAF down to Harper,” Tim describes. “The other option was a 17-hour car drive, which we just didn’t have the time for.” In the rainy season that same drive can take days as the road turns to a muddy mess, often becoming impassable.

Breathe

The program is divided into 10 sections, starting with immersion – learning to not fear the water – followed by basic swimming skills and working in baby steps up to surfing: get on, paddle, stand up. Throughout the process, the kids learn to manage their pain, anger, and disappointments. Sit on the surfboard – breathe in, breathe out. Lift your arms and think of a happy time – breathe in, breath out. Find an object on the beach and think of a good time. When anger and frustrations come, hold the object and remember the good.

“The mission of this program is to provide a safe space for the kids, and provide caring adults for those kids that are at risk in the community,” one instructor describes. “We find ourselves in a community where there’s a lot of domestic violence at youth, against children…This program gives us the opportunity to be with these kids, to help build them up, to build their self-esteem. It helps us to listen to how they feel, and to let them know that they are important, that somebody is there for them, that they have people who care for them.”

Liberia is the first country the program has expanded to outside of South Africa. Founder Tim felt Liberia would be a good place to test the program outside of his own country – a place traumatized by war and the recent Ebola crisis. “We were really interested to come to Liberia because it’s such a challenging place to work. We want to pressure-test the model and see if it can be done here, and then basically it can be done anywhere with a coastline. It’s been an adventure.”

On the 29th of April, for the first time in 27 years, a plane landed at Cesstos airstrip following months of a rehabilitation project by Mission Aviation Fellowship Liberia (MAF). Pilot Arjan Paas carried members of the Liberian Aviation Authority (LAA) who carried out an airstrip inspection. MAF’s Swiss Airfield Developer, Maurice Houriet, oversaw the rehabilitation through many obstacles. Cesstos is now open for passengers needing to fly to this location.

A request came from Partners In Health (PIH) for MAF’s assistance in transferring a patient from their hospital in Harper. Five year old Ama was in desperate need of specialist treatment and intensive care following a horrific incident in which her hands had been burned in hot oil by a relative for allegedly eating leftover food without permission.

The little girl’s hands had been seriously damaged and three fingers had to be removed. While MAF was able to assist in a small way by transporting the child from her rural hometown in SE Liberia to a large hospital in Monrovia thus saving her two days of painful travel by road, her plight drew much wider attention from the Government and media.

The First Lady, Mrs Clara Weah, visited Ama in hospital in Monrovia. “Honestly, it saddens me to see what happened to this child, it totally breaks my heart,” said the First Lady who called for drastic measures to protect children against such acts.

Speaking with government and NGOs working in the field of child protection she said, “We have to try to implement measures to protect children because it’s sad that someone could do something like this to an innocent child.”

Hopefully, this little girl’s story will continue to motivate people to ensure that changes are made to improve safety of children in Liberia.