With the help of O’Neill, a South African nonprofit called Umthombo is changing the lives of homeless children in South Africa one wave at a time. Umthombo, which means “wellspring” in the Nguni languages of Southern Africa, was founded in 1998 by British surfer and human rights activist Tom Hewitt and his wife, Bulelwa Mandisa Hewitt, an activist and advocate for the rights of street children.
“When the kids put on their wetsuit, it’s as if they put on a Superman cape,” said Rob Bain, O’Neill’s Global Brand Ambassador and Asia Pacific Marketing Manager. “To walk to the beach as a surfer, through a very heavy part of town, it gives them a sense of confidence and stature.”
Umthombo functions as a safe house for homeless kids, preventing them from living and sleeping on the streets. Children at Umthombo are fed and educated, while social workers help them to overcome the traumatic experiences which have shaped their lives. Umthombo is not the only organization to fit this description, but the program sets itself apart from other Durban safe houses by engaging the kids with high-intensity activities such as surfing.
“The challenges that street childen face can include hunger, violence, disease, drug addiction, but the underlying issue is that the children arrive in the streets traumatized and then become more traumatized in the streets,” Umthombo co-founder Tom Hewitt said. “Working with street children is not just about getting them off the streets. It’s about providing access to a path of healing.”
For Hewitt, the answer is fusing what he refers to as “high-intensity engagement activities,” or physical challenges that capture the kids’ attention, with psychosocial services such as counseling.
In addition to physical activities and trauma counseling, participants at Umthombo are engaged through art and taught life skills with the goal of successfully reintegrating them back into Durban society.
“Surfing … is a fantastic way to consume the children and distract them from the pulls of street life,” Hewitt said. “It opens the door to the psychosocial work. That said, surfing’s own value is also huge. When kids are stoked they are excited and motivated. We try and harness the stoke and use that as part of the model.”
It’s a recipe that seems to brew success. Several graduates of the Umthombo program have created successful careers around surfing — one as an ISA qualified surfing coach and surf school owner, one as a professional lifeguard, and several who have found jobs within the South African surf industry.
“Surfing is a lot of things … but to me it is life because I love it,” said former street child and Umthombo graduate Andile Zulu in a short documentary called “Kushaya Igagasi” that aired in South Africa.
Zulu added, “Surfing got me out of many things, like stealing … peer pressure. I like surfing because I feel free when I am in the ocean.”
Zulu works in a surf shop and as a global ambassador for the organization Surfers Not Street Children.
With support from O’Neill and guidance from Hewitt, Team Surfers Not Street Children is working to raise public awareness about street children. In 2012, Hewitt handed the Umthombo leadership role to South African social worker Mpendulo Nyembe in order to focus on raising the profile of both Umthombo and Surfers Not Street Children.
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