“I really think I found my purpose by helping and empowering young people. I feel all the steps I took in life somehow connected and make me able to live a purposeful life, giving back to people and the community.”
Those are the words of Manuela Giger, 38, director and co-founder of the youth and community development NGO, Waves For Hope.
Born and raised in Switzerland, Giger founded the NGO with her husband, professional surfer, Christopher “Chris” Dennis, in 2019.
Dennis is a TT national champion, a former World Qualifying Series competitive surfer, and an ISA certified surf instructor.
In 2018, he received the Angostura Champion award for his community work, and the Surfing Association of TT awarded him the Surfer of the Year title in 2019.
Also, in 2021, he won the Aloha Award which recognises individuals in the global surfing community who shares their joy of surfing with others, give back through acts of kindness and demonstrates "commitment to living a life consistent with the principles of the Aloha Spirit."
As surfers who live near to the beach in Balandra, Giger and Dennis have experienced the physical and psychological healing properties, and calming effects of natural bodies of water.
So far, they have shared those benefits with about 40 youths in the area through Waves For Hope’s main programme, a six-month mental health intervention for youths ages nine and up.
“If we are allowed to, we go to the beach and we run a set of activities with mindfulness. We surf with them, we teach them skills and tools to cope with their stress at home and school. We use the surfing and fun activities around it to teach them how to communicate, how to look out for each other, and how to identify their feelings.
“We create a positive, safe space for them to learn new positive behaviours, to interact in positive ways with their peers, and to give them an outlet. We offer a holistic approach to well-being.”
The programme facilitates youths of various skill levels – from non-swimmers to competent surfers – once per week. Although the main draw for the children is surfing, for the facilitators, surfing is a way to attract the children and teach them.
After six months of surf therapy, they graduate into Waves For Hope’s club where they meet to surf once a week and are surrounded by like-minded peers.
Giger told Sunday Newsday when the pandemic hit TT, they saw an even greater need for their intervention because, although it has been difficult for everyone, it has been especially tough for young people.
She said online school has been challenging for the children of “underserved communities” as, at the start, many did not have devices, internet, a quiet space in which to work, or support from the adults in their lives.
When the beaches closed, she and Dennis ran workshops using art and games to teach mindfulness and the other topics they would have addressed on the beach.
“To us it’s very important that we keep a certain rhythm and continuity to those teachings so they would really stick and the children would get to practice all of that.”
During the pandemic, they tried to keep the children engaged especially as many were not attending school due to connectivity issues. They also did a device drive and distributed devices to students, helped families set up internet in their homes, continue to conduct homework assistance sessions, and generally help and support the children of Balandra in any way possible.
With the beaches reopened, the couple has been running the club sessions and hope to restart the therapy sessions by the end of February.
There are usually 20-25 youths in a group but, due to covid19 regulations, they will have to keep it to ten per session and maybe have two groups instead of one.
They also plan to expand the therapy programme to other communities with the help of five youths who have been trained as facilitators.
“If it wasn’t for covid we would have been up on the north coast already. What we do is, in each community we train up youths that join the programme to become mentors being able to deliver the programme. The goal is to have self-sustainable programmes in every community run by the youth of the community.”
Giger said Dennis has been teaching children how to surf from a young age. Growing up in Rampanalgas, his family also helped those in need with food and money, taught children of the community to read, and ensured they went to school. Then he began to coach young talent.
“You don’t only coach them to surf, you coach them through life. You help them with school, you help them with any issues they have.
“I came into the picture and started spending time in Trinidad. I just helped where I could and did my part.”
In 2018, they received a donation of over 200 surfboards from the US non-profit organisation, Positive Vibes Warriors Foundation and the Vans company.
“With that came an invitation to attend a surf therapy training in South Africa. Those two things really initiated us. We now had the equipment and knowledge to, not only help one kid at a time, but to really set up a structured programme to offer something to a whole community.”
In Switzerland, Giger studied communication science and literature, worked at different marketing jobs, and studied to become an Ayurvedic life coach and a nutritionist based on the Ayurvedic science.
According to one medical website, Ayurveda is the world's oldest holistic healing systems, developed more than 3,000 years ago in India.
“It’s based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit.”
She explained that, when she was young, she and her parents travelled to Sri Lanka. There they visited some monks and she became fascinated by their way of life, how they had herbs and plants to treat diseases, and the way they were one with nature.
She simply knew one day her path would take her to that field.
She also used to kite surf, wind surf and did anything involving sports and water which led to her learning to surf at age 29.
“I quit my job in Switzerland and I told myself I will go and travel for a few months. For me it’s always nice to have a purpose behind travelling so I set myself the goal that I would learn to surf during this travel, and I went for it.”
She was searching for a quiet place without big crowds to surf when, in 2013, she “ended up” in Trinidad and met Dennis who she married in 2016. She returned repeatedly for several years and settled in TT in 2019.
Now, she is able to combine her loves for water, sports, and holistic development to help youths on their path in life.