Why were you drawn to work with street children?
I first encountered street children as a volunteer on a trip to Maputo, Mozambique during the civil war in 1990. I had never seen street children before and found it quite shocking. I had seen homeless adults in the UK but not young children.
What inspired the idea of empowering street children through surfing?
Since he was 15 years old Tom Hewitt has been a passionate surfer. Over the past 20 years he has used surfing to become one of the most committed campaigners for the rights of street children.
My passion for street children and surfing co-existed but never coincided. Until one day I was surfing and some of the kids that I was working with were watching from the pier. They asked to have a go. I knew that they could swim so I told one of them to jump in from the pier and I put him on my board and pushed him into a wave. The look of joy on his face was fantastic and he rode the wave to the beach on his belly! After that he got out and ran up the pier to go again. At that moment, I knew that the kids on the streets could be just as stoked about surfing as I am.
Why do you say you were ‘born again’ in South Africa?
I love the UK but I am a huge fan of South Africa - there is a richness in the environment, people and culture here that is exhilarating! Sure, the country has some serious problems, but so do most places. My take on it is that we should be committed to bettering the places that we find ourselves in but at the same time unashamedly enjoying its wonderful aspects. SA has so much going for it and I actually happen to be a fan of Durban particularly. I've lived around the world and, as a surfer, Durban is one of the best places in the world that you could find yourself!
Tell us more about your organization, Surfers Not Street Children?
Surfers Not Street Children is committed to changing the way society perceives and treats street children. It’s made up of an advocacy team of former street children who are now surfing instructors, lifeguards as well as sponsored and professional surfers. The team inspires other street children around the world through their surfing and speaking, encouraging and inspiring other street children to see their own worth and live out their potential.
What is your biggest inspiration and motivation?
The street children themselves inspire me. I really believe that the situation of street children is not a hopeless one. Any social issue that can be articulated and understood can have correct strategies developed. It’s so important that we educate society on the reality of the street child experience so that decisions around them are not made from a position of believing false stereotypes.
What has been your greatest lesson learnt in the work that you do?
I have learnt that you won’t get every child off the streets; that drugs can completely destroy the good work that you have done; that you can bridge the gap for youngsters to get back into society but ultimately as their life goes on, they are the captains of their own ship.
What has been the feedback from the kids themselves?
The youngsters who have come through the programme are very loyal. I often get adults coming up to me, who I don't recognise, saying, ‘Do you remember that you and your team got me off the streets.’ That’s really encouraging!
How can you spread this amazing concept to other countries where street kids suffering?
Surfers Not Street Children is looking at working with our partners in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola.
Facebook: Surfers Not Street Children