Erin Jones was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, but she and her family spent summer vacations on the beaches of Hilton Head. After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia, she accepted a Clemson University job offer in Summerton. Eventually, she responded to the ocean’s call, relocating to Charleston in 2003, where she became a mental health therapist at Ralph H. Johnson Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
During her seven years at the VA, Jones specialized in trauma and worked with veterans with PTSD. In 2015, she joined the staff of Warrior Surf Foundation, an innovative nonprofit program for veterans and their families. Here she was introduced to the use of surf therapy, also known as ocean therapy. Warrior Surf is one of more than 80 organizations worldwide affiliated with the International Surf Therapy Organization.
In 2019, Jones co-founded Waves 4 Women, a women’s surf therapy program. Based on the experiential education model, the four-week program focuses on learning to practice mindfulness, manage uncomfortable emotions, develop a growth mind-set and empower women to do more than they think they can.
Yes, counseling really does occur on the beach; however, Waves 4 Women focuses more on building peer support than on psychotherapy. A thorough intake process clarifies the realistic expectations. Women who appear to be in need of crisis intervention or intensive mental health treatment will be connected with community resources that can provide more immediate and intensive mental health support. In such situations, therapeutic surf clinics can be very effective at promoting emotional, physical and social well-being in combination with more intense therapeutic services.
“My goal is to promote feelings of empowerment, enhanced self-worth and connection through the challenge of outdoor adventure experiences,” explained Jones. “I also want to foster a sense of community and belonging.”
Her goals are on-target with why women of all ages are choosing to join Waves 4 Women: some for the challenge of learning a new skill; some want the community that forms when women work together; some seek more self-awareness; some desire to meet and make new friends; and some, isolated and lonely because of the pandemic, want reconnection. Many others are coping with some form of trauma or a variety of life stressors such as divorce, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, grief and loss, and substance abuse.
The typical enrollee is comfortable in the ocean and has some basic swimming skills. Surfing is taught by experienced instructors. A first-aid trained lifeguard, an experienced surf director, water support volunteers and wellness coaches complete the team that supports Waves 4 Women during surf clinics and keeps everyone safe – a top priority.
A typical two-and-a-half-hour clinic involves six to eight female participants. Each class begins with a pre-surf wellness discussion focused on a specific skill – such as mindfulness. An hour of surf instruction with practice follows, and the session ends with a post-surf group debriefing, which encourages reflection and self-evaluation leading to the discovery of new insights and healthy behaviors that can be incorporated into daily living.
Jones has exciting future plans for Waves 4 Women. She hopes to expand to year-round programs and include groups for both younger and older teen girls.
“I want to also become more diverse by creating a safe space for women from all racial and economic backgrounds. Donations and our yearly fundraiser will help make that possible. New clinic volunteers are welcome to assist in a variety of ways: serving as ‘water support’ at our clinics, spreading the word about our program or assisting with administrative tasks. Finally, I would like to partner with similar-minded local organizations to more effectively meet the many diverse needs of local women. Such collaboration could be beneficial to us all.”
With Jones’ contagious enthusiasm, it’s obvious she is determined enough to bring this women’s surf therapy program into its own place in the sun – and on the beach.
For more information about Waves 4 Women, visit waves4women.org.
By Janet E. Perrigo