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Timothy Conibear: Mental-Health Services to Underserved Communities Via Sport

Timothy Conibear: Mental-Health Services to Underserved Communities Via Sport

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs.

Hey there! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. Today I’m super excited to speak with Timothy Conibear all the way from Cape Town. Timothy is the founding director of Waves for Change, a non-profit organization which is working towards UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being.

Spiffy: Welcome to the blog, Timothy! What challenge are you addressing through Waves for Change?

Timothy: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Did you know that In South Africa, fewer than 10% of children and adolescents who need a mental health service receive it (The Child Gauge 2022), or that only 5% of the national healthcare budget is directed towards mental health? There is a growing appetite for new, scalable interventions that can increase coverage of mental health promotion and prevention services in underserved communities, where the majority of the population are uninsured and rely on under-funded state healthcare. Waves for Change is an award-winning South African non-profit organization that uses sport and physical activity to deliver evidence-based mental health prevention and promotion services in under-resourced communities.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

Timothy: I arrived in South Africa from the UK to pursue a career in wine making. On arrival, I was struck by the very real social barriers that prevent the bulk of young South Africans from accessing opportunities that many children in the UK, myself included, take for granted.

Spiffy: How would you say you are working towards a more equitable world?

Timothy: If we want to improve a population’s mental health, we need to give more individuals more access to more places where they can regularly engage with people and experiences that improve their mental health. Waves for Change trains and employs unemployed young South Africans to create these spaces, creating locally owned and sustainable new mental health programmes that are sensitive to the needs of the populations they serve.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organizational milestone or initiative. What impact does that make on your community?

Timothy: In 2010, Waves for Change started as a small surf club, working with one coach and 40 children each week. Today, Waves for Change reaches 2,500 children. We also provide support to a network of 35 youth organizations globally, with whom we share our curriculum and evaluation tools. A recent evaluation of the W4C Surf Therapy program, published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, found that children in the W4C Surf Therapy felt more safe and settled. A second evaluation found that Surf Therapy is an efficacious, trauma-informed intervention for violence-exposed youth, significantly strengthening interpersonal connectivity and reduced impulsivity/risk-taking tendencies.

Spiffy: Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from it?

Timothy: Perhaps the most important formative experience for Waves for Change was a feasibility study we ran in 2014/2015. That study looked at our initial programme design and whether it was likely to yield impact. After 12 months of hard work, we learnt that the programme was indeed feasible, but was being held back by a number of fairly basic logistical challenges that were preventing meaningful impact. It was hard feedback to receive, but it helped us understand how we could improve our programme and prepare it for scale. Seven years later, we now have published evaluations of our impact, and a growing international footprint as we share our model with more partners.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Timothy: At the heart of all our work is attachment. It's incredible how powerful a caring attachment with a peer or a caregiver can be in transforming your life. In South Africa, as in many other countries globally, caring attachments are not the norm for children. Introducing a caring coach, or a caring new friend can be the difference. It's simple, but so effective.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Timothy—it’s been an honor!

Tim Conibear is the founder of Waves for Change and a fellow of the Ashoka Network. Originally from the UK, he's spent the last 12 years living in Cape Town, and has grown Waves for Change from a small weekend surf club to a renowned international non-profit using sport to grow access to mental health services. (Nominated by Adam Fraser at the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. First published on the Ladderworks website on February 7, 2023.)

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.