28 February, 2019 28 February, 2019

Making waves (for little surfers)

Hermann Viviers is not your usual wave-seeking pro. He’s a surfing oke from Melkbos with a heart as big as a J-bay bomb, and a will to do some good. He sits cross-legged on the blue couch across from me, dressed in jeans and an ‘Africa for Life’ T-shirt. Inside The Surfer Kids’ Diaz Beach office in Mossel Bay, we’re surrounded by surfboards and walls decoupaged with surf magazine pages. Alongside me, dog-eared photos of thirty grinning kids in wetsuits are proudly glued to a ‘wall of fame’, full of certificates. 

The Surfer Kids non-profit organisation (NPO) utilises a slogan that speaks volumes: “Empowering marginalised youths through surfing”. This organisation teaches kids from the community of Joe Slovo Village in Mossel Bay how to surf, and also helps them learn about commitment and perseverance, “something every surfer knows all about,” says Hermann.

Last year, The Surfer Kids was riding the big waves when it was one of the top three nominees for a South African Sport Award in the category, Recreation Body of the Year. Hermann doesn’t want to brag about it he’s too humble for that but he says the recognition from the surfing community feels good. “Whereas money fuels you on a material level, recognition fuels you on a more emotional level. To know that there are people watching, and people that go, ‘Well done, thank you for doing this.’”

Hermann started the NPO five years ago and he’s still going strong as chairman. The idea of teaching underprivileged kids how to surf actually kicked off four years before The Surfer Kids became an NPO. Hermann and his wife, Jenya Zhivaleva, spontaneously decided to move to the Garden Route after they spent just one day in the area on their honeymoon in 2010. The couple started giving surf lessons to four kids from a settlement near Friemersheim near George. “There was nothing to keep them busy with, nothing constructive. No sort of development of their physical or mental capabilities, nothing. It was just sort of… dead and dusty.” This, according to Hermann, simply was not cool. They taught them how to surf, but with another agenda in mind: to teach them about commitment, dedication and working towards a long-term goal.

“I’ve always known that if you really want to help somebody, you’ve got to teach them something,” Hermann says. “There’s this old cliché, you know: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It is a cliché because everybody says it, and yet everybody still makes the mistake of wanting to help by giving things away.” 

The Surfer Kids moved to its own premises at Diaz Beach in Mossel Bay when it became an NPO. Now, they also have a full-time supervisor and a community coordinator that cooperates with the TM Ndanda Primary School, recruiting kids under the age of 10 from the local townships of Isazane, Isinyonka and Fairview (a.k.a. Joe Slovo Village or JC Camp). The lessons take place from Tuesday to Friday and also on Saturday, so that Hermann’s team has at least one no-school day for a nice long session. Currently, 31 kids are part of The Surfer Kids program, and they even get the chance to compete in some local and national competitions once they’re ready. With sponsors and donations from lots of kind folks and businesses, there are always wetsuits and surfboards for everyone. 

As if The Surfer Kids isn’t doing enough good in its community, Hermann also manages a volunteer program. Anyone from anywhere in the world can join as a volunteer (as long as they’re decent swimmers) to help teach and supervise the little surfer dudes and dudettes. The Surfer Kids hosts six volunteers at a time, and they live close to Diaz Beach during their six-week stay. Since 2010, about 35 volunteers from various European countries got the chance to help out the grommets from The Surfer Kids and gain an epic life-changing experience.

The Surfer Kids isn’t Hermann and Jenya’s only contribution to the surfing scene. They also run Unravel Surf Travel, a tourism business that takes international surfers on surf trips in the Garden Route, KwaZulu Natal and Mozambique. This also turns out to be a social outreach opportunity for the visiting surfers, as Hermann encourages them to interact with the young The Surfer Kids participants. 

So, what would The Surfer Kids be up to next that could make the NPO even more awesome than it already is? Hermann gave me the answer to this soon enough: the patch of land in front of the office is on its way to becoming a skateboard park. He’s especially stoked by this since they only recently got the plans, permission and other municipal administration finalised. “Lots of the body movements in skateboarding are complimentary to surfing,” he says. Sure, but it would also just be ‘rad’ to have a skateboard park out front. Hermann’s also planning to fix up the building’s run-down adjoining diving pool, and he’s avidly looking for sponsors to help with this. Any takers out there? 

Hermann gets up from the couch and proudly shows me the colourful and mismatched collection of wetsuits and surfboards. Some of the boards are second-hand gifts from locals or visitors, others were sponsored by Surfing South Africa or Share the Stoke’s branch in Cape Town. They’re all resting on overhead shelves or packed in domino-like vertical columns I’m almost too scared to touch them in case I set off a chain reaction. He mentions how the kids are already preparing for the upcoming Eden District Team trials.

This team will compete with seven other coastal districts in the annual SA Grommet Games in Port Elizabeth, which Hermann describes as “Surfing South Africa’s flagship transformation event.” After competing in this competition once or twice, the kids are upgraded to the Junior Championship level. “The Surfer Kids have been represented at the Grommet Games six times since 2012 as part of the Eden District team,” he tells me, “and in 2016, ’17 and ’18 we had four to five kids in the team every year. In 2017, The Surfer Kids won its first medal at the Grommet Games.” This, along with their SA Sport Awards nominee, is no doubt only the beginning of great things for the NPO.

It’s almost funny when Hermann starts talking to me about violin music as he sits there in his flat cap and bare feet. He says surfing is like playing the violin, because it takes time and commitment to master. This is what The Surfer Kids teaches its mini-members, along with the idea that hard work is always bound to pay off. “We’re giving them the confidence to go out there and say, ‘Despite my background, despite my circumstances, there’s no reason why I can’t go out into the world and do something for myself and create for myself the same opportunities that other people have.’” 

 Anyone, according to Hermann, can make a difference in the community as long as you stay positive. It’s as simple as that. NPO’s like The Surfer Kids, he says, have the power to constitute change. “If the number of people who do this sort of thing increased by a factor of ten, what would happen to this country?” His words kind of remind me of a rather tired expression: ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. In this case, The Surfer Kids is being that change, one surfer kid at a time.

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