AN INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDER ALEX WEST.
In one or two sentences, how would you describe One More Wave?
A countrywide community of veterans sharing the power of Ocean Therapy.
Where did the idea come from? And how did it become what it is today?
I was a volunteer surf instructor for Naval Hospital Balboa's Health and Wellness “Surf Clinic.” While there, I noticed the need for surfboards customized to the patient's needs. Injuries such as amputees, spinal cord injuries, vestibular issues, and burn victims to name a few all required modifications on their boards. While the Surf Clinic had a couple "one-offs," I began to research if an organization or company was specializing in these modifications, and I found out there wasn't one.
One day at the clinic, I was surfing with a young Marine who had lost his leg below the knee. It was a beautiful Southern California day, and I noticed he was smiling. I asked him, "why are you smiling? Is it because its such a gorgeous day?" he replied, "It is beautiful out, but that's not why I'm smiling. I'm smiling because when I'm out on the ocean, nobody stares at me as the guy who is missing a leg. And when I catch a wave, all of the pain goes away, that's why I'm smiling." That was my "ah-ha" moment. I knew I had to get off my ass and start the non-profit.
On the way home, I drove to a book shop, went into the Non-Profit section, and immediately felt overwhelmed by the selections. There were books written on the leading non-profits of the world, influencers, celebrities, professors who teach at the most prestigious schools, and more. I immediately felt deflated and wanted to leave empty-handed. Then by chance at the bottom of the shelf, I noticed a small yellow book. I thought, "It can't be…". I pulled it out, and it was titled How to Start a Non-Profit for Dummies. Not wanting to go home empty-handed, I bought the book, went home and began reading, that was the start of One More Wave.
Can you share one of your favorite/happiest moments so far, whether it be a funny story from shaping a board, or a rewarding moment seeing someone enter the water again?
Honestly, there are so many, and it's hard for me to place a value on each. I can say there is a common theme that gets me emotional even as I write this. Before surfing with a veteran, I often observe the veteran as being closed off, dismissive, and unemotional. I know from my struggles, it's a sign of mental disturbance such as PTSD, Anxiety Disorder, or Clinical Depression. Because I am literally "one of them," it never bothers me because I know the ocean is about to change their mood, albeit maybe only for a surf - but that's all it takes. After the formalities of introductions and, in some cases, a surf lesson on land, we enter the ocean. You can feel the angst radiating off the veteran. When the veteran turns their board toward the beach, preparing themselves to catch a wave, you can feel the magic of the swell under your board heading to the veteran. It's as if you are handing off the veteran to the ocean, saying "do your magic." Once the veteran catches the wave, you can see that negative energy blowing off them with the sea spray, and a primal, almost childlike smile forming across their face. After the wave is over, you can hear other One More Wave team riders hollering and cheering on the veteran as they surface, always with a smile. Simply put, it's electrifying.
What has been one of the most significant challenges you've encountered along your non-profit journey, and how did you overcome it? Are you facing any new challenges today with the current pandemic? What silver linings have you found?
We have had several. To begin, we started with literally nothing. For example, to pay our filing fees and create our first board, I had to raise money by selling t-shirts out of my truck and at small venues. I owe a big thanks to several patriotic bar owners that probably felt sorry for me during those days. It took almost four months to raise the money for our first board.
After Starbucks showcased us during a documentary called Upstanders Season 2, our popularity and grantee applications skyrocketed. We were not ready for the volume, and when we reached 70 custom surfboards in our queue, we had to stop taking applications for almost eight months to focus on our orders. We had to refine our processes and come up with a way to move forward. That experience, while extremely challenging, made us so much stronger as a team, and we are better for it.
Lastly, COVID has been challenging for many reasons. For one, people rightfully so are not donating to charities as they have been in the past due to the economic downturn. Two, we receive a lot of our applications from incredible surfing non-profits such as Balboa Hospitals Surf Clinic, The Jimmy Miller Foundation, Operation Surf, Veteran Surf Alliance, and AccesSurf Hawaii. All of these organizations, currently by law, cannot conduct their surfs, so in turn they are not able to feed us their patients/veterans. This has affected the number of applications we usually get.
When it's time to unplug from the news and recharge, what do you like to do? I imagine surfing might be one answer! Any other tried and true methods to calm the mind in uncertain times?
Yes, surfing for sure. I'm also into graphic design, art, and an avid reader of mostly classic authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and books on mental health. I'm also big into podcasts. My "go-to" is Joe Rogan due to talents as an interviewer and all of the motivational guests he has.
Is there another book/show/mentor you find incredibly inspiring lately?
Karl Marlantes, What It’s Like to Go To War. This book is thought by Vietnam Veterans as "their story" and is often studied in graduate schools across the country for aspiring therapists. It is also impactful because my father was a Vietnam veteran and struggled with the war until the day he died.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. Van Der Kolk opens the reader to the impacts of trauma on the human body, not just on the mind. It's incredible.
William Finnegan, Barbarian Days A Surfing Life. Just a well-written book about Finnegan’s adventures surfing. It provides a great escape.
Resurface. A great film about our good friends at Operation Surf (operationsurf.org) and how they have, in many ways, blazed trails for the adaptive surf community - incredible.
What gives you hope for the future, and where do you hope to see One More Wave in that future?
Currently, we have nine chapters around the country. We are starting three more, one being in Okinawa, Japan, at a Marine Corps Base. Each chapter has a Team Leader who organizes a surf every third Saturday, leads fundraisers, and spreads awareness in their area. Most importantly, they make sure all of our team riders are being supported. With that said, we will continue to grow - how much, I'm not sure, but my gut tells me that we will double the number of our chapters over the next few years.
We also have the most extensive knowledge of adaptive surfboards of any surfboard factory in the world. In the future, we will look to provide free access on our website to the specific designs our team has researched and developed. While our focus is on veterans, I don't want to hold back what we have discovered from the wider adaptive surf community.
What can readers across the country do to better support veterans today?
That's a great question, and I could go many ways with it. First off, find a veteran charity that resonates with you (I'm hoping you pick OMW). From there, realize there are many ways to support it. Something as simple as following or sharing their mission on social media is a great start—secondly, volunteer. We have over 1200 volunteers at One More Wave, and not all of them are surfers. You may have a skill such as graphic design, piloting your drone, or grant writing that could benefit the organization. Non-profits will always save money and be effective with their mission if they maximize their volunteers' skills.
Lastly, realize that the closed-off veteran you know who is pissed off at everything wasn't always that way, and that's often a disguise to cover up their pain. Just be patient with them and encourage them to seek help or go for a surf with them, it could save their life - trust me.
And for the veteran, if you live close to the ocean, and want to see how ocean therapy can help, apply on our website. What are you waiting for? You owe it to yourself and your loved ones.
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