A teenager's vision has bloomed into a revolutionary surfing therapy programme that is turning around the lives of Tauranga's lost and forgotten.

Krista Davis was 14 and hooked on surfing when the seed was planted for her future direction in life.

''I knew from a young age that I wanted to help people. I dreamed of marrying my love of surfing to my life's goal to help people - little did I know that it would happen.''

The seed has now sprouted into a young tree with branches that look like encompassing the whole world.

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The founder of Tai Wātea (waves of freedom) has successfully taken the redemptive power of surfing and used it to give hope to young men whose lives were on a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Davis remembered the moment two years ago when she spotted she was not the only person in the world using surfing as the gateway to successful intervention.

''I remember thinking, oh my gosh I am not alone in this dream. Others are using surfing to help people.''

Davis began translating her dream into reality in 2011 when she took the first tentative step to trial a surfing-based therapy programme with a handful of disengaged young men from family backgrounds of neglect and abuse.

''The first programme was very basic - it was going for a surf and having a chat afterwards.''

Tauranga's Live for More founder Krista Davis with 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. Slater signed the Surf Therapy Declaration. Photo/Krista Davis
Tauranga's Live for More founder Krista Davis with 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. Slater signed the Surf Therapy Declaration. Photo/Krista Davis

Straightaway she saw an improvement in their attitudes compared with counselling within four walls.

''They loved it. I thought, there is something working here. Four weeks and 100 per cent attendance - it was unheard of.''

Realising she was just skimming the surface, she refined and improved the programme but within the orbit of holding down her regular drug and alcohol counselling job.

Finally in 2015, Davis decided to take the plunge and began planning how to overcome the formidable hurdles needed to turn surf therapy into a fulltime job. Live for More and Tai Wātea was launched in February 2016.

She has encountered people who were skeptical about the surfing component, but the bottom line was that it worked.

Learning to surf and enjoying the freedom and comradeship of riding the waves led into one-on-one clinical sessions and group therapy sessions. Therapy sessions included inspirational guest speakers who had come from similar backgrounds and had turned their lives around.

The odds looked stacked against Live for More. It took young men aged 17 to 24, nearly all of them growing up around drug and alcohol abuse.

''I have worked with a guy that was hooked on P by the age of 14. The average age they started on drugs and alcohol was 11. One in three had been in youth prison and over half had attempted or contemplated suicide.''

Davis said most were desperate to change but did not know how.

''There are not a lot of positive role models ... it is kind of the lost and forgotten demographic.''

One probation officer even told her not to bother with one young man because he was only going to end up back in prison.

So has Live for More been successful?

''A hundred per cent have changed for the better. They only take good from the programme.

''It has engaged young men that have been pretty much unengageable.''

After finishing the programme, she has asked them where they thought they would have ended up. Most replied dead, in prison or killing themselves.

''How many start hopeless and end with hope? All of them. All experience the joy of surfing.''

Davis said she never saw instant results, but two years down the track she saw guys who were working and out of the justice system.

''They are not perfect angels, but compared with where they would otherwise be, they are alive, well and working.''

A lot of the men who entered the programme arrived through word of mouth. And it worked because she met them on their level. ''We don't judge them, we just accept them for who they are.''

She said Live for More was about young men and not young women because, generally speaking, it took much longer to develop a rapport with guys. ''They are slow to talk.''

This was where surfing built a strong rapport. ''It is nice to get out and do something - to build a relationship outside the four walls of an office.''

Without this rapport, counsellors seldom got through to their client in a clinical setting.

''A significant part of mental wellbeing is connection. Surfing together built comradeship.''

Live for More and Tai Wātea dealt with people to whom everyone they had trusted had let them down.

''They are stuck in a cycle of hopelessness - they don't see a way out.''

As far as she was aware, Tai Wātea was the only programme in the world that paired clinical therapeutics with surfing, and the demographic was unique.

Krista Davis, the founder of the inspirational Tai Watea surf programme, loves the beach at Mount Maunganui. Photo/George Novak
Krista Davis, the founder of the inspirational Tai Watea surf programme, loves the beach at Mount Maunganui. Photo/George Novak

Surf therapy overseas was geared at people with autism spectrum disorders and mental health conditions.

Davis said there were elements of mental health in the people who used Live for More, but it was not the presenting issue.

''They are bros, diamonds in the rough. It is a lot of work but they are worth the blood, sweat and tears, and when they make it, oh it's incredible.''

The psychology degree holder from California fell in love with New Zealand 10 years ago when she visited during the third year of her four year course.

''I knew I needed to come to New Zealand.''

Her first job was drug and alcohol rehabilitation at Odyssey House in Auckland for 15 months. After she got her New Zealand residency, she moved to Mount Maunganui and became a fulltime drug and alcohol clinician.

''The surfing was also good.''

She realised that her dream of surf therapy could only grow so much when she was still holding down a typical office-styled counselling job.

''It came to the point of taking a leap of faith.''

Now she has an office at Gate Pa, another fulltimer whose job was a youth navigator and a part-timer.

Davis was the clinician, leaving the navigator to provide all the practical one-on-one stuff, like helping them through Work and Income, getting a driver's licence, and identifying career pathways.

The leap of faith was largely because Live for More was always under financial pressure.

Davis said the team needed to be expanded in Tauranga to make it more sustainable.

''Right now we are under-resourced. We always need funding - there is no government funding.''

She said they were halfway towards the goal of 200 regular donors giving at least $5 a week.

And a grant from Bay Brighter Futures had enabled her to hire the second fulltime person.

''I would love to become more sustainable. It enables you to plan. I would love to have one job instead of wearing five different hats.''

"It is a lot of work but they are worth the blood, sweat and tears, and when they make it, oh it's incredible."

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But she did she want to get into a funding situation where she had to tick boxes just for the sake of ticking boxes.

''I love working at the coalface.''

The ideal would be to expand the team so everyone could concentrate on their strengths and operate as a team, she said.

Live for More was generously helped by supporters who volunteered for tasks like taking games of touch rugby, surf checks and helping with surfing lessons.

Davis returned from South Africa this week where she attended the second international conference of organisations that used surf therapy. The 14 organisations at the Jeffreys Bay conference was many more than the inaugural conference.

A highlight was the Surf Therapy Declaration. It was supported by many of the professional surfers that were taking part in the nearby round of the World Surf League.

The declaration recognised that surf therapy was working for a lot of ailments. Two overseas students were about to start their PhDs in surf therapy and in New Zealand a woman was preparing to do her masters in surf therapy.

''We have moved from people saying 'ugh it is just surfing', to recognition that we are getting better results than medicine for people with mental health problems.''

Looking at the $100,000 a year it cost to keep a prisoner in jail, she wished there was more money to run programmes in New Zealand that changed behaviour by positive reinforcement and not by punishment.

''The majority of people in prison need rehabilitation, but we are sending them to crime school.''

Davis said sending young people to prison was sticking them in a revolving door.