Pam Burridge teaches teens to surf and heal after their blackest summer
Scars from the Black Summer bushfires of 2020 are etched in the landscape of the South Coast of NSW and on the children who survived.
Former world champion Pam Burridge points toward the blackened Conjola Mountain, north from Narrawallee Beach.
"I only have to look up the beach there and I can see the damage, they're just sticks. They look like match sticks," Ms Burridge said.
Her surf school in Mollymook is one of a network of South Coast surf schools taking part in an innovative program run by the NSW Police Force, in partnership with Surfrider Foundation Australia, to help teenagers overcome the trauma of the bushfires through a connection with the ocean.
"Until this program I have never touched a surfboard," said year 8 Ulladulla High School student Deklan Barford.
"When I found out a few of the kids proper surfed I'm like, 'Am going to make a fool of myself?' But you've got to have a go, otherwise you'll never experience it."
As fires roared across the landscape west of Milton in January 2020, Deklan anxiously awaited an update from his father Chris, who stayed to defend the family home.
Mr Barford ended up running for kilometres with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, his headlamp, and his wallet after the house was engulfed and his van melted.
"My mind was just racing, going through my head like, 'What's happened? That can't be good if he's left because he's a really brave man'," Deklan said.
"Dad walks up and I said 'How'd it go?' And he says 'We've lost it. We lost it'."
Chris Barford abandoned his van after it began to melt and ran for kilometres to escape the bushfire that destroyed his home.
Year 7 student Chloe Hamilton's father Trent battled the same fire as it bore down on their home. With only the help of a neighbour, the odds were overwhelming.
"Mum got the call that the house didn't get saved," Chloe said. "I didn't really care about the house anymore, I was worried about Dad the whole time.
"He came home at nearly 10 o'clock at night and his hair was crazy. All the tips were burnt and it was so scary."
Self-esteem, fitness, environmental stewardship
The Swell Program aims to use surfing to help young people to build self-esteem, fitness, and a sense of stewardship of their local environment.
The program has been run so far with students from Batemans Bay High School, Moruya High School, and Ulladulla High School, with surf lessons provided by local surf schools.
"Our aim is to encourage them to try new things, to step out of their comfort zone," Senior Constable Matt Berry said.
As the youth officer with South Coast Police District, he runs the program with Surfrider Foundation as part of the NSW Police RISEUP strategy.
"The students get a surf lesson before they go to school. They learn about water safety and we give them a healthy breakfast," Senior Constable Berry said.
"We also give them opportunities that they may not have experienced such as yoga, taking part in beach cleans, and learning about Indigenous cultural heritage."
The students are also introduced to local community groups and services like Headspace, Katungal Medical Service, Treadling Lightly, and the Clontarf Foundation.
At Ulladulla High School, students are supported by student wellbeing officer Ice Schaap, whose position received funding from the Snow Foundation.
"The idea is to connect these kids to a whole network of people within the community, to show them that there's a lot of support and guidance there if they need it," Senior Constable Berry said.
Bushfire recovery grant
The program is currently focussing on students impacted by the bushfires, with funding provided through a Bushfire Recovery Grant from Coordinare, a government public health network.
"I think some kids may fear nature a little at the moment," said Allen Grimwood, president of the Eurobodalla branch of Surfrider Foundation Australia.
"When we did lessons for the Batemans Bay students there was one kid who hadn't been to the beach since Malua Bay New Year's Eve, when thousands of people fled to the beach with horses and dogs.
"It took him a year to get back to the beach. We really want to see the students become aware of the environment, respect it, and gain the benefit of being in the ocean through surfing."
For Deklan, Chloe, and many of their classmates, rebuilding their lives after the fires is a journey of patience and optimism.
"We're slowly rebuilding, frames are getting put up, the house is going to be really good," Deklan said. "Life's hopefully going to go upwards."
"When you get to know somebody that's been through the fires, you sort of feel like you're connected in some way, which is pretty cool," Chloe said. "But it kind of sucks that they've been through the same thing as you, and you feel sort of bad for them.
"You've got to sort of see the positive side of things, and just get back up again."
// WAYNE CARBERRY and VANESSA MILTON
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Support for young people and families
Headspace: Centres in each state and territory or check out eheadspace for online support
The Kids Helpline: 24-hour support on 1800 55 1800
Lifeline: 24-hour support for all Australians on 13 11 14