Amy Sheldon

Pictured alongside Professor Phakeng, after being awarded the Vice-chancellor’s Research Scholarship.
Amy on one of her first adaptive surfing experiences with the Roxy Davis Foundation.

Finding growth in feared waters: The expanding mindset of a Masters’ graduate and now, adaptive surfer

by Kirsten Steenkamp

July 2021

The world celebrated Mandela Day on 18 July, a United Nations-sanctioned awareness day that honours the community hero and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Mandela humanised enemies by offering a blueprint for compassion, forgiveness and respect for one another. He held an undying belief in the people of this country and was able to inspire hope, in hearts around the world, for a more equal and just society.

This Mandela Day we meet Amy Sheldon, a long-time friend and pledge partner to The Chaeli Campaign. After raising funds through the organisation, Amy became a beneficiary of her first motorised wheelchair in 2007. Though she says it took a while to drive properly, Amy confidently comments that “motorised wheelchair users are probably the greatest drivers ever!” Gaining more independence than ever before, Amy matriculated some years later and went on to study Film and Media.

As a recent graduate from the University of Cape Town (UCT), she completed her Master’s in Film Studies on the local film Krotoa – a largely unknown true story about the 11-year-old Khoi girl who became an instrumental negotiator and interpreter alongside Jan van Riebeeck during the earliest Dutch settlement in the Cape. But before Amy found herself at UCT, she spent her entire schooling career at Vista Nova. As many children with physical or intellectual challenges are not accommodated in mainstream schooling, Vista Nova is geared towards growing learners according to their pace and needs.

Amy was born with cerebral palsy and from the age of 3 and a half years, she was nurtured at Vista Nova by on-site therapists (speech, physio and occupational), psychologists and even doctors. She
spent her entire school career here, and many years later, Amy can reflect how her safe – and perhaps sheltered – environment has impacted her courage to tackle life head on.

After matriculating, Amy spent a lot of her time at UCT worrying about accessibility to lecture halls, and around endless stairways and out-of-order lifts. Fortunately, she had a team of volunteers who assisted with varying physical needs, such as getting books from the basement section of the library and opening heavy doors. However, constantly challenged to learn to trust other people, Amy admits that it was daunting.

To further complicate matters, she expressed her belief in which she felt it was a weakness to ask for help. “Having to navigate these social complexities is taxing”, but it is a common struggle for people living with disabilities who often feel that they exist in the backgrounds. Internalising over many years that she’s not welcome in certain spaces, Amy holds a deep unease about trying new experiences and trusting strangers.

Fears and insecurities compounded with a belief that Amy shouldn’t bother to pursue exercise, as it wouldn’t “change” her disability. She says she used to have a very different relationship with her disability than she has now… And forever impacted by a more recent involvement, Amy is getting to learn the fine balance between trust and courage.

A good friend of Amy’s from university volunteers for the Roxy Davis Foundation and recently convinced her to give adaptive surfing a try! After just a few sessions, Amy reveals that the surfing clinic could not have come at a better time and that it has already been life changing. To honour Mandela Day, we spotlight the impact of this incredible organisation: An NPO founded in 2019 in Cape Town who is gifting people with disabilities the joyful experience of being in the ocean, riding waves and being part of a supportive community.

As a wheelchair user with limited upper body functioning, she is reliant on several qualified volunteers to physically support her on the unstable board. Uncertain of what to expect on her first adaptive surfing session, there was initial panic when the water hit Amy’s face! But, awakened by the adrenaline rush of being on the water, Amy leaves her fears at the shoreline.

Living with a disability has meant that she is always planning far ahead and mentally check-listing what feels like a thousand things! Shown she has nothing to worry about in the hands of her trustworthy volunteers, it has been surreal experience to simply be ‘in the moment’.

In the past, the commitment of others to help has felt forced or expected. But Amy is realising – powerfully – that she can no longer wait on others to help, she needs to seek out places and partners who are willing and open to accommodate to her needs. Getting out and being with people who want to be there has meant a lot. And being inspired by the passion of the volunteers and organisers at the Foundation, she is learning to accept the generosity and kindness of others, growing her self-worth and in turn, self-love.

As fate would have it, the connection between The Chaeli Campaign and the Roxy Davis Foundation extends beyond Amy and intertwines into the story of our very own Chaeli Cottage.

Liza Lucani is a paediatric neurodevelopmental physiotherapist whose young ones visit her on-site at the Chaeli Cottage. Since the inception of the Roxy Davis Foundation, Liza has been involved as technical support to assess surfer safety, manage the adaptive surfing teams and accommodate to the special needs of each surfer.

As a physio working with such a unique organisation, Liza has combined her passion for improving mobility with her love for the ocean – which she says has always been her happy place. Bridging the best of both her worlds through adaptive surfing has brought her much joy. “I love seeing how surfing can be therapy for those who previously would have thought this impossible.”

In 2019 on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Chaeli Cottage preschoolers were fortunate to spend the day in Muizenberg enjoying adaptive surfing with Roxy’s Foundation. This outing was incredibly special for our staff and children. For some, it was their first time at the beach and for others, their first experience being in the sea. Liza says, “it was a scary and exciting time for all!”

Smiles all around on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 2019

The Chaeli Campaign values the work and influence of the Roxy Davis Foundation in their quest to mainstream ocean-based therapy programmes. Catching up with Roxy Davis herself, she shares the sentiment about the importance of focusing on ability and creating safe spaces through which vulnerable persons can enjoy a sense of belonging:

“The volunteers have single-minded focus, love and attention – offering surfers the opportunity to enjoy the thrill of riding waves in the way that they can. The things that I’ve really seen have an impact in Amy’s sessions – mental health and wellbeing, being outdoors in the natural environment and the ocean, and the community sense. It’s really about the passion of the community.”

Amy says, “I have spent a lot of time sitting and wishing I could be like everyone else and feeling like my disability closed me down and robbed me of opportunities.” Now, exciting changes accompanying her relationship with the Roxy Davis Foundation offer new beginnings. She is thrilled to be part of the adaptive surfing movement in South Africa, and we can’t wait to see how the waves of life help her flourish into becoming more of the strong, powerful woman that she is.

If you’re drawn to the ocean and would like to know how you can become an adaptive surfer or trained volunteer, reach out to the Roxy Davis Foundation (hosted by Roxy’s Surf Emporium in Muizenberg) to get in on the action!

Amy Sheldon Social Media Links
Instagram: @amygabrielle_sheldon
Facebook: Amy Sheldon

The Chaeli Campaign Social Media Links
Instagram: @ChaeliCampaign
Twitter: @ChaeliCampaign
Facebook: The Chaeli Campaign
Chaeli Sports & Recreation Club Facebook: Chaeli Sports and Recreation Club

Amy Sheldon
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