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Waves for Hope: Spreading joy through surfing

By Daniel Young

For Christopher ‘Chris’ Dennis, the sport of surfing has provided much. In the local Trinidadian surf community,  Dennis is an icon of the sport, a second-generation surfer who learnt the intricacies of surfing from those individuals who pioneered the sport on the island.

Dennis grew up in the rural community of Balandra where there was no electricity at the time. He recalls doing many things including homework by candlelight. His life, he says, was very simple and based in humility as he and his family would grow their own food, sell their produce on the roadside and wash their clothes in the nearby river. When he could, Dennis would cut grass at the homes of the beach-house owners to bolster the income from selling produce. He knew the meaning of hard work and the value of a simple life.

A simple life in Balandra allows for a unique sense of your natural environment. Connection to the natural environment is a connection to God. As Dennis puts it, “I feel spiritually connected through nature.” God, it would seem, put him in an environment that nurtured this connection from a very young age. In his own words: “it feels like my life is scripted.” His expression of his life feeling scripted stems from his sense that everything he had been experiencing was preparing him for the next step in his life. It was in this community that he would develop his love for the ocean.

Dennis also grew up spearfishing from the age of six. It was the first activity that connected him to the ocean and for years he would rely upon the ocean to provide food for him and his family. His view of the ocean was clear, and he would learn to ‘read’ the ocean early on. The water was only one thing in his mind for a long time – a source of food. At the age of 12, Dennis recalls seeing surfing for the first time. “One day I saw two guys in the water sitting and waiting and wondered what they were doing. I saw them paddle and stand up on this board, and I said ‘wow, what is that?’.” Whenever he got the opportunity, he would observe the surfers. At 15, a cousin of his, who at the time was a caretaker at one of the beach-houses in the area, acquired an old surfboard and began learning to surf. Dennis waited and observed his cousin and the other surfers for at least a year before he asked to try it out. The moment he was able to get up and ride the wave, he was hooked.

At the beginning of his surfing interest, Dennis was an avid cricketer, noting that at the time prominent clubs in the country took an interest in him. When he began surfing, his passion quickly shifted. That July/August, most of his holidays was spent in the water. He became tunnel-visioned and began reading as much as he could about the world of surfing. He recalls examining the pictures in those magazines in intricate detail, emulating the hand positions of those surfers and imagining himself surfing just as well as they did. He would strategically place magazine cut-outs of the best in the world so they would be the first thing he saw when he woke and the last thing before bed.

The start of competitive life

Dennis’ surfing became a staple activity for him in his teenage years in the 90s. Surfing at that time was a very popular sport on the island and surf contests would regularly attract big crowds, many attendees from abroad. At the time of Dennis’ rise in the sport, he recalls experiencing racism and classism, noting that he became very conscious of his race as it was perceived in social circles that surfing was for the affluent members of society. This did not deter him. With his focus and work ethic, he was improving rapidly at such a rate that other surfers encouraged him to compete in the local contests. Dennis recalls his first contest as the first time he had ever surfed that wave, the Reef Break wave, which is a unique challenge. Learning the intricacies of how the wave behaves takes time.

His first contest was a challenge in other ways as he entered the contest without a surfboard, having to borrow one from his friend Cathy-Ann Smith. He recalls the significance of this, describing the board as perfect for the waves, complete with artwork of angel wings. He attributes a message of “you’re going to soar” to this synchronicity in his life. He went on to win the competition at Toco in 1995 and became the Junior National Champion.

After winning that contest, Dennis returned to selling produce, cutting grass and earning a living supporting his family. He continued surfing as much as possible and began meeting other surfers who would encourage and ultimately help him to enter contests throughout the Caribbean, most notably Barbados which, at the time (and still to this day) hosted major international events. These contests led him to his most ambitious endeavour — competing on the international stage on the World Qualifying Series, a competition series held in various locations in the surfing world. The various challenges of competing on the World Qualifying Series (WQS) would catch up to Dennis and he would eventually fall off the qualifying standards required by the sporting bodies.

Giving back to community

After not making the cut for competition in the WQS, Dennis returned to Trinidad and his humble home in Balandra. On his return, he began teaching others in his community about surfing, something he began doing in his younger years and would do periodically throughout his career. He had always been charitable with his time and attention, giving others school uniforms of his, helping others to read and teaching them what he could. This charitable attitude was developed by watching his mother interact with other villagers, and her work in primary schools playing for the choir. His teaching villagers to surf began one by one and eventually snowballed over time. He not only taught the younger generation how to surf but helped them with homework and life skills.

Over time, the budding organisation grew to a point where he could not do it alone. He had to introduce other surfers to help manage the response of the Balandra community. Surfing had become a paradigm shift for the villagers there, away from gang-related activity, drugs and violence. He believes “many Trinidadians have not developed an emotional intellect or maturity and as a result they lack the proper communication skills to deal with their emotions, so they lash out.”

He points out that problems in the individual stem from problems in unhealthy home environments. His initial drive was to provide the youth in the community with role models who would have a positive effect. As the organisation known as Waves for Hope has grown, his vision has expanded to include many more projects. This growth has also been internationally recognised by organisations such as Positive Vibe Warriors and the Vans Company which support Dennis’ endeavour to bring surfing to his small community. Both companies donated hundreds of surfboards in support of his efforts.

Dennis and his wife Manuela Giger, who co-founded Waves for Hope have begun developing structured programmes for the youth in their community. Recently Dennis received a scholarship to further study surfing-based therapeutic intervention, noting that he had already been implementing similar techniques in his work with participants and was not aware of it. One such technique he calls the ‘Take 5’, which guides someone who may be feeling overwhelmed emotionally to focus on their breath to help calm them.

Dennis’ work over recent years has become a model for what citizens of Trinidad and Tobago should strive to bring about. His work has not gone unnoticed either. In 2021, he became the recipient of the international Aloha Award that recognises individuals in the global surfing community who are ambassadors of the Aloha Spirit and who continue to make a difference in their communities by spreading joy through surfing.