Catching waves, saving lives at surfer clinic
Surfing puts smiles on faces. And Cornish charity Surf Action sees this first hand every week, down on the beaches in North Cornwall, when veterans whose lives have been torn apart by war learn to catch the waves.
The twice-weekly sessions are about more than surfing, although the release to be found in riding the waves is the start of a healing process.
It is no exaggeration to say that the charity set up by surfer and Gulf War veteran Rich Emerson four years ago, saves lives.
Many of the veterans who turn up at their HQ at Heartlands near Pool are in a desperate state, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing horrific things in conflict zones.
Within weeks of joining the group for their "beach clinics" though, they are on the road to turning their lives around.
"We are very hand-to-mouth, but the results we get are unlike any others," says Russ Pierre, who helps run the charity. "What we aim to do is to get people into a better place where they can move forward with their lives."
As well as the release to be found in the waves, the charity offers psychological support and help with getting back into work.
It all starts with the surfing, though, for the charity is based on Rich Emerson's own experience that surfing did more to help him move on from the psychological trauma of war than anything else. "When you are surfing you are not thinking about anything else, you are just concentrating on catching the next wave," said Russ, himself a surfer.
He describes a typical "beach clinic", held weekly at Gwithian and Newquay.
"The first thing we do is catch up with anybody who needs any help," he says. "We have a 'red, green, amber' system to flag up to us if anyone needs additional help. We then go surfing, which is when we put the smiles back on faces and have a laugh.
"Afterwards, we go back to our HQ and have a cup of tea and anybody who needs it can have a private chat. One of the major problems when someone gets Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that they are isolated," he adds. "Just getting someone to come to the beach can take away that feeling of isolation. They are with people who share similar experiences, so they feel less alone. And no one has to explain themselves."
The transformation can be startling, he says. "We have one chap, who did several tours in Afghanistan. When he came to us he was self-harming, and suicidal, in "rag order" as they say in the military. He drove nine hours to come to us."
After eight weeks of twice-weekly "surf clinics" and psychological counselling provided through the group, he was a changed man.
"He is now doing a fitness training course through a gym, and training to be a fitness instructor. He and our other guys are looking to do military training down on the beach.
"I don't think it will be much longer before he'll be capable of doing a Level One surfing instructor's course. He is a different person."
The charity depends on donations and is grateful for help from the National Lottery, which each year gives £35 million to good causes.
Surf Action received £363,169 in March from the National Lottery's Reaching Communities fund, to put towards its running costs over five years. It follows earlier help from the BIG Lottery fund, three years ago, of £49,629, which was used to buy wetsuits and surfboards, including specialist boards adapted for use by amputees.
Without the cash the charity could not survive, says Russ Pierre. "It allows us to develop what we do, so we can carry on doing beach clinics and running more family days."
With more than 170 veterans on their books, as well as visits by others referred through other charities, the charity has outgrown its base at Heartlands near Pool. They moving to Long Rock near Penzance, and are fundraising for the £8,000 cost of building the new HQ.
"We get asked in fundraising applications 'how do you measure success?' Sometimes it comes down to 'they are still here this week'," says Russ. "We are proud of the fact we have saved lives."