Behind the Waves: An Interview with Katy, West Cornwall Project Coordinator at The Wave Project

Behind the Waves: An Interview with Katy, West Cornwall Project Coordinator at The Wave Project

As part of our exciting launch of the Wave Project Ocean Dreams Blanket, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Katy, the West Cornwall Project Coordinator for The Wave Project.

Katy plays a pivotal role in transforming young lives through surf therapy, guiding and supporting children as they experience the therapeutic power of the ocean. In our interview, she shares insights into her rewarding job, and the impact of surf therapy. Join us as we dive into Katy’s inspiring journey and learn more about the incredible work happening at The Wave Project.

Can you tell us a bit about your role as a project coordinator?

I started working as The Wave Project's West Cornwall Coordinator in 2014. It is a very varied role which is exciting and challenging in equal measure! I coordinate The Wave Project in my patch, which stretches from Truro down to Lands End. I plan, organise and lead the running of the our Surf Therapy courses and Surf Club sessions, working with over 100 young people throughout the year. I create and maintain relationships with the organisations that refer young people to our services, such as schools, GP surgeries and Cornwall Council, helping them understand what we do and how we can help the young people they work with.

I recruit and train our amazing volunteers, whom we cannot run without. I nurture the important partnerships we have with the local surf schools, who help us to run all the fantastic surf sessions.  I also help to fundraise so we can make all this happen. Oh and I am trying my old hand at social media to promote the charity too! So lots to keep me busy and there is never a dull day. 

Could you explain what surf therapy is and how it benefits young people?

Surf Therapy the way The Wave Project does it, is combining the natural healing benefits of being in blue spaces (water), learning to surf and the emotional and physical support of trained volunteer mentors. This combined, helps young people to feel less anxious, more confident and happier about their lives.

How are the surf therapy sessions structured? 

Our Surf Therapy sessions have between 8 and 12 young people who are signed up to come for 6 sessions with us. Each session is two hours long. The young people arrive at the surf school and are greeted warmly by the staff and volunteers. All the young people have a volunteer Surf Mentor to partner up with them for the 6 sessions. Once everyone is ready in a wetsuit we all walk down to the beach together. There are two instructors who lead the surf lesson, help everyone to learn new skills and keep everyone safe.

No one is made to do anything they aren't comfortable with, so some youngsters surf, some bodyboard and some simply enjoy swimming, jumping and playing in the water. They always have someone to surf or play with as they have their volunteer Surf Mentor.

Each participant has their own bespoke journey. Some may be learning new surf skills each week, some may be slowly gaining confidence in the water through play. It might take someone 3 or 4 weeks to gain enough courage to put a wetsuit on and walk to the shore, and that is as much of a success as the person who has learned to trim on green waves on their own.

What is your favourite spot in Cornwall for Surf Therapy sessions?

In West Cornwall we are lucky enough to run Surf Therapy from some beautiful beaches, at exceptional surf schools. So, it would be difficult to choose one as a favourite. Each location has it's unique charms. Both Gwithian Academy of Surfing and Hayle Surf School are set in the most beautiful place. People love the laid back feeling of the surf schools and the calmness of being surrounded by nature - 3 miles of golden sands and dunes!

Sennen Surfing Centre are able to set aside Sundays just for The Wave Project, so they create a real sense of community and belonging for all the young people and the volunteers. 

St Ives Surf School is right on the beach so lots of fun is had on the sand at the beginning of sessions. You know the kids are starting to feel relaxed when they begin burying each other! The instructors are always full of beans too and really bring the fun. 

What changes have you observed in the young people who participate in surf therapy?

At the beginning of the first session, tensions run very high in some of the young people who come to us. Many of the participants are super anxious and in a state of fight or flight. Hiding behind parents, crying or refusing to engage. Once we take the pressure off and they understand they don't have to do anything they don't want to, they start to feel safe enough to join in.

Once we hit the water, something magical happens, worries melt in to the waves and laughter and happy screams can be heard through the roar of the surf. Everyone comes out looking relaxed and happy. Kids who wouldn't look up from the ground are smiling and high fiving their mentors. 

This keeps getting better each week and at the end of the 6 sessions there are lots of happier young people. 

Can you share any success stories?

One young person was very anxious, very depressed and feeling suicidal. He has autism and could only focus on the negative effects this had on his life. He wished he hadn't been born. He gained so much confidence and self-esteem during his Surf Therapy course, that he finally felt able to join the basketball team at school that he had longed to join, but never felt he could. He said to his mum "You know what, I think I'm alright!"

Another young person had been feeling very low and depressed. He has Down's Syndrome and had felt isolated and ostracised for much of his life. He would say to his mum and dad, 'I'm so lonely". 

After his Surf Therapy course, his mum said that it was the first place he had felt true inclusion. He suddenly started to talk positively about his life, talk about the future and he started behaving more independently. He even went on to get a job. He said "the fear has gone" and "I'm a surfer now". 

What is it about the sea and surfing that makes them such powerful tools for therapy and personal growth?

Being in the sea, particularly in waves, helps us be 'in the moment' letting go for a while of our daily stressors. The dynamic nature of the sea forces you to focus on your surroundings and how you are interacting with it. This is practicing mindfulness. One young person described it as 'leaving my worries on the shore'. There is also evidence that being in blue spaces (water) helps to create a feeling of calm in our brains. 

Learning to surf helps to build resilience as you generally have to fall off a lot first! But even when you have a wipe out, there are people shouting "Woohoo" and bringing joy even to the bits that go wrong. This helps people learn that failure is a good thing, it is part of learning. Jumping back on and trying again, and again, and again, that is resilience, and you can apply that feeling to other areas in your life.

The kind and patient support of the amazing volunteers helps young people to try things they never thought they could. When a young person has 1:1 support they are able to take each step of the surf session at their own pace. Our volunteer Surf Mentors help young people feel emotionally and physically safe, only then are they are able to learn new things and have FUN.

Once you feel safe, calm, happy and a sense of achievement, you have the capacity look at yourself and the world around you in a more positive light.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Knowing that I have helped young people feel happier. Pulling someone out of a dark hole and helping them feel like they have value and a life worth living, makes all the hard work worth it. I'm often in happy tears at the end of a 6-week Surf Therapy course.

I also get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing I have helped volunteers to join a community, make friends and have a great time too!

How do you see the role of surf therapy evolving in Cornwall in the coming years?

It has been really encouraging to see more and more people invest in Surf Therapy and the benefits it can have on mental health and overall wellbeing. I hope that it can become something that is invested in by healthcare providers through social prescribing. It would also be fantastic to see schools investing in our Surf Therapy and Education programs on a regular, long-term basis. To help us reach all children in Cornwall.

See our new collaboration blanket Wave Project Ocean Dreams here, or read more about the design process in our blog here