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How Waves 4 Women is helping those who have experienced trauma, depression, and anxiety restore their balance

How Waves 4 Women is helping those who have experienced trauma, depression, and anxiety restore their balance
June 2022

Co-founder Erin Jones is building support, one swell at a time

Folly Beach-based nonprofit Waves 4 Women, co-founded by Erin Jones (bottom right), offers a four-week therapeutic surfing program to help women strengthen their physical and emotional health.

After navigating COVID guidelines during the 2020-2021 school year, the hardest of her 22-year career, special education teacher Kerry Strum says she felt scared and defeated. She turned to Waves 4 Women, a Folly Beach-based nonprofit that offers therapeutic surf lessons to women dealing with trauma, depression, anxiety, or loss.

“The therapy aspect of it reminded me that surfing was much like life,” she says. “You fall off the board, but the most important thing is getting back out there and trying again. It was a life-changing experience.”

Waves 4 Women co-founder Erin Jones had seen the benefits of surfing through her work with Warrior Surf Foundation for veterans. After three years as the group’s wellness director, the licensed clinical social worker recognized that women who had experienced trauma needed their own safe place to go work through the recovery process and helped launch the nonprofit. “We serve a lot of women in their late 20s through 50s or early 60s, so there is this vulnerability not only because a fair number of us are not at the same level of fitness that we used to be but because of the physical challenges of learning,” Jones says. “When you teach surfing, there’s a lot of touch involved. If you’re teaching someone who has experienced trauma like sexual or physical abuse, or even just a break in trust in a relationship, a lot of women say they feel more comfortable in an environment with other women.”

Before joining Warrior Surf Foundation, Jones had worked at the Veterans Administration in Charleston and had been trained in therapy in outdoor settings, such as rock climbing. In 2019, when surfer Kristen Litchfield proposed a group to help women improve their physical and emotional wellness by hitting the waves, Jones hopped on board.

Four years later, about 150 women have gone through the four-week Waves 4 Women program. Participants don’t need to have surfing experience to join a session, which teaches physical strengthening, surfing skills, and wellness. The nonprofit provides the equipment, including rash guards, boards, and leashes and has one instructor for every two students.

Jones says the women in the program celebrate each other’s successes, whether it’s popping up on the board or catching a wave.

“Part of what we are doing is teaching people to manage anxiety and stress and build healthy coping skills. What’s nice about surfing is we identify skills that are helpful for women to learn like mindfulness, self-talk, managing uncertainty and discomfort, and noticing what’s around you. When you don’t do that with surfing, the consequence is you fall off the board.”

Waves 4 Women offers scholarships for women who cannot afford the $400 fee. And, the group, which is funded by grants and donations, held its first fundraiser at Taco Boy on Folly Beach in April. The funds raised will go toward scholarships and the purchase of wet suits, making it possible to offer the program year-round.

Jones, who has taken medication for depression and anxiety since she was 19, says “the exercise and the outdoors and having that group of people who are supportive in my life is very important, so that’s what pushes me and makes me believe this is an important thing to offer.”

Through Waves 4 Women, she hopes to build a broader support community, one swell at a time. “For some people, just lying on the board on their stomach may be a big thing. For others, it’s getting on their knees or jumping up,” explains Jones. “We celebrate whatever their success is. For a lot of women, this may be the one time in a week where they are responsible only for themselves. We let them give themselves permission to have this time for themselves.”