People laughed at me when I told them I’m going to surf. They said, “You! Surfing! It could never be!”
For Melreen Devilliers, neither fear nor being laughed at by her peers could stop her from following her heart and embarking on what would become an incredible, albeit challenging, journey. One that would shape her into the woman she is today.
Three years ago, Mel found herself at a crossroads. She was working in retail and admits it was something she really didn’t want to do. She was miserable. Around her were teenage pregnancies and gangsterism and she knew that if she didn’t make a change that she would find herself walking down a dark path. The catalyst that would nudge her in a positive and new direction was one that had always been in her heart – the desire to work with children.
Mel had a friend who was working at Waves for Change (W4C) and decided that she would contact her. There were no expectations, in fact Mel had no idea what being a W4C mentor, a role that she now proudly holds, even entailed. She was called in for an interview and when the opportunity to become a mentor arose she grabbed it with both hands. In her own words, “I told myself I am going to find something I love. I love working with children and I just went for it.”
Through their award-winning Surf Therapy program W4C provides psychosocial support to youth from some of the most at-risk communities in South Africa and Africa. Mentors are trained and allocated to these communities. Beyond the Surf Therapy sessions, the organisation also works to assist young people through home visits, school visits, social work, soup kitchens, child and youth care training, and homework support.
Mel admits that it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Besides having to overcome negative comments she had never surfed before and had to overcome an intense fear of heights, something that when faced with a large swell, wasn’t easy.
“I just pushed myself and pushed myself and through W4C it built up my confidence. It helped me through a lot of things I was struggling with. It taught me how to cope with relationships, death, friendships, and companionships. It made me a stronger person and a woman, the woman I am now. I always thank W4C for the skills that I have gained through the program. It helps the kids but it has also helped me to grow. In every situation I’m faced with in my life I think of those waves and tell myself that I can catch it! I compare that to my everyday life and the things I am struggling with.”
Mel explains what a regular work day involves…
Meetings, site meetings, planning of the day, preparing sandwiches and wetsuits – everything for the kids. Then we get in our wetsuits. When the kids arrive, we welcome them with a friendly welcome and then we take register, we hand out equipment and boards, then the kids go change, one coach assists them in the changing rooms, then we walk down to the beach with all the coaches around to assist and observe. We do a warm-up and an energiser then a ‘check-in’, which involves breathing and meditation and then the lesson for the day. After the lesson, we do a debrief about what we learnt for the day. The lessons involve things like coping skills and life-skills, and every second week is a different topic. We follow a 6-month curriculum. Then we allow the kids to go for a free surf then it’s back to the container to change and eat.”
Mel’s advice to anyone facing a similar crossroads in life is, “Listen to yourself, check in with yourself. Listen to your feelings. Listen to what you want to do and not what other people want you to do. It’s only you that is going to help you. Trust your struggle – that’s my saying. And never give up. If you get knocked down 100 times, tell yourself that 101 times I will succeed!
And succeed she has.
Seeing a smile on the kids’ faces and seeing the difference in their behaviour is what Mel loves most about her role as a mentor. “The kids that come in are mostly troubled kids. But throughout the trouble there is a seed of goodness in every child and it is for us to empower the kids, to bring out that seed and let is grow.”