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Former South African addict helps others kick the habit – by surfing

Lenny Stolk started LJ's Surf Clinic this fall in Cape Town, South Africa. The clinic's goal is to help addicts get clean.

By Ian EvansContributor / November 28, 2008

Sober dude: Lenny Stolk (l.) comes in from a session with A.D. Sabeh at Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. Mr. Stolk started LJ's Surf Clinic this fall to help addicts kick the habit.

Alexia Webster

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Cape Town, South Africa

They've ridden the high and lows of addiction and now a group of recovering addicts is learning to surf the waves as an unlikely part of their rehabilitation program.

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Patients at the respected Tabankulu Recovery Center in Cape Town are encouraged to take up the sport to help wean them off their various addictions and personal problems.

Once a week the assortment of people struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, bulimia, and other troubles pick up their boards and learn to surf in the waters around South Africa's "Mother City."

Their tutor, Lenny Stolk, is himself a former heavy drinker and drug addict who kicked his habits seven years ago.

After rehabilitation, Mr. Stolk returned to work but was made redundant in June this year. It was then he thought about starting up LJ's Surf Clinic.

"I spent 90,000 to 95,000 rand (around $8,800) on the van and surfboards and spoke to the clinic," says Stolk. "I did not want it to be a surf school.

"I wanted it to be a surf clinic to help addicts and people with problems," says Stolk. "I've looked on the Internet and can't find anywhere else that offers it."

Since September, Stolk has taught about 20 people to surf.

Tabankulu divides its treatment program into three different stages based on a 12-step recovery plan.

The clinic attracts people with drink and drug addiction or behavioral problems from around the world. Most are from Britain and different parts of Africa, but it currently hosts people from Sweden, Holland, and Ukraine. They pay some $15,000 for a typical nine-month course of treatment.

As well as surfing, patients can learn, among other things, gardening, cooking, yoga, kung fu, or painting, supplemented by therapy and counseling.

Surf therapy

Once a week, Stolk teaches two groups of five or six surfers, but he is keen to stress that it is seen as a "reward" for progression with other elements of the program.

Among his current crop of surfers is A.D. Sabeh, a Ghanaian who only has one leg.

Mr. Sabeh, who lived some of his teenage years and early 20s in San Francisco, lost his right limb in a nightclub shooting by police in Ghana's capital, Accra.

Standing up on his board, Sabeh balances on one arm for a few seconds before regularly falling off – but he's not giving up.

Sabeh says learning to surf in South Africa was nothing compared with giving up alcohol and drugs. Despite being in and out of rehabilitation centers, he was unable to beat his addictions until he joined Tabankulu 10 months ago.

"I was a bit skeptical about learning to surf, but I've got a good teacher and he's given me the confidence," says Sabeh.

"It takes my mind off drugs and my treatment," he says. "It's given me hope for the future."

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