Ripples of change

Words by Jo Jukes

Not all heroes wear capes; some wear wetsuits. Brenda Miley is the founder of Let’s Go Surfing, a Bondi based award-winning surf school that has taught thousands of people to catch their first wave at one of the world’s most iconic beaches. Not bad for a business that started with nothing more than five surfboards, a Kombi van and one woman’s passion to encourage more women into surfing.

But Brenda’s business isn’t your average surf school. Every year since 2012 they have channelled over $150,000 into their local community through fundraising, programs and sponsorship, while donating free surf education programs for indigenous youth, people with disabilities and disadvantaged groups. For Brenda, it all began on Sydney’s Coogee Beach where she caught her first wave on her dad’s back at three years old, and she hasn’t lost the surf bug since.

She started surf coaching from a van on Sydney’s Bondi Beach in 1995 before moving to a local shopfront in 1998. Two decades later, Let’s Go Surfing has won numerous tourism awards and employs around 100 people across three locations in NSW. Their mantra of “changing lives one wave at a time” is the motivation behind everything they do, inspiring them to increase their community programs since 2012.

Wanting to develop self-confidence in new arrivals to Australia, Let’s Go Surfing provided courses to the Surfing Without Borders program in collaboration with Settlement Services International, a not-for-profit organisation that supports refugee settlement. The three-month program was designed to help people arriving in NSW under Australia’s Humanitarian Program, from countries like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, to overcome their often-traumatic experiences with the ocean, reduce the high number of beach rescues for migrants, while also helping them integrate into their new lives in Australia.

 

According to Trina Soulos, Community Engagement Manager for SSI, one life that was changed by the surf program was that of a young Iranian woman who survived a boat accident on her way to Australia, while many of her companions didn’t. The woman had loved swimming regularly in Iran but developed an intense fear of water since the accident. “The day she came to the Surfing Without Borders initiative, she was scared and shaking like a leaf,” remembers Trina. “She told me that she didn’t want to reach the end of her life and not enjoy the peace swimming had always bought her. Her smile when she jumped up on that surfboard was the biggest I’ve ever seen. And at the end, she just closed her eyes and let her body crash into the ocean, like she was finally free. I think Brenda and the Let’s Go Surfing team gave this woman back her peace.”

And it’s not just new arrivals to Australia that received a self-esteem boost from Brenda’s surf courses. The business has also partnered with numerous support organisations to provide free or low-cost surf courses for members, including a relationship with Blind Sports NSW to teach vision impaired people to surf and with Tobruk House (North Bondi RSL sub-branch) to help reintegrate returned soldiers into the community through physical activity.

When they’re not working, Brenda and her team are still giving back to the community. The staff’s regular participation in competitions like SurfAid have raised funds for countless charities including WAYS Youth Services, Cancer Council and the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Brenda feels we can learn a lot from surfing to create ripples of positive change in our own lives, whether we ever decide to paddle out or not. “The ocean doesn’t always give you what you want. You don’t often get the perfect wave, just like you don’t always get the perfect opportunity in life. But when you get one you’ve got to go for it, because you might not get another one for a while.”

This article was originally published in Issue 15, Dance Your Cares Away.