A Surf Therapist Builds a ‘Really Beautiful Thing’ for Trauma Survivors

Groundswell Community Project founder Natalie Small wanted to empower women through surfing in San Diego, but no one was doing it. So she created the opportunity herself.

Jenna Miller By Jenna Miller

Photo courtesy of Natalie Small

She wears a wetsuit to her “office” on the beach, and group sessions are held in the ocean. Her name is Natalie Small, and she is a surf therapist.  

In June 2016, the licensed marriage and family therapist combined her lifelong love of surfing and innate drive to help others to form Groundswell Community Project, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego that offers surf therapy to women clients grappling with mental health problems. What started as a program with 15 women participants now serves more than 300 women a year.

But this passion project has come with one major challenge for Small: fundraising. “Growing up, I was taught, you don’t ask for money, you earn it,” she says.

Many women pay a suggested donation of $450 to participate in Groundswell’s 8-week sessions. But including women who can’t afford that sum requires that Small raise money, so she pushes past her personal hesitation to ask for help from several sources.

Most of Groundswell’s donations come in the form of gear like surfboards and wetsuits — the most essential components to getting the women out on the waves — from community members and wetsuit makers like O’Neill and Kassia Surf.

Monetary donations pay for the day-to-day operational costs of the program like paying the staff who run Groundswell and who provide services like surf instruction to the women. Groundswell’s current annual budget is $40,000,  but Small is looking to lift that number for next year. “We hired an executive director at part-time, minimum-wage [rate] last January, and are looking to increase our budget to $150,000 to $200,000 for next year so we can have … trained and contracted surf therapy facilitators and surf instructors,” Small says.

Raising the Money She Needs

Credit: Groundswell Community Project Facebook page

Small’s current fundraising efforts largely revolve around outreach to area yoga instructors, companies in the swim and surf industries, other nonprofits that help women and interested members of the San Diego community. She has made deals with organizations like Oku Water Bottles, Storm Blade Boards and Simply Straws to donate a portion of their proceeds to Groundswell.

She has also had success with fundraisers that are creative and fun. Small likes to put on benefit events that put twists on yoga, surfing and other fitness activities. For example, in the past year she has planned and held a yoga dance party, a surf yoga class and an acro yoga session, which is a combination of yoga and acrobatics.  

One of Small’s recurring surfing events is the “Whomp-etition,” in which participants wear crazy costumes, such as neon wetsuits, tutus, snorkels and gear like shark fins. Competitors race through swim heats that are fun and silly — one even bans them from using their feet.

These efforts have resulted in a wave of positive responses and a great deal of donations from people in the community, she says.  

Waves of Gratitude

Her fundraising efforts may be lighthearted, but Small is doing serious work, according to former Groundswell participants.

Kate Floyd was one of the program’s first participants. She traveled to San Diego from Seattle for personal healing through Shakti Rising, a house where women live temporarily while developing personal care and leadership skills, and was one of five of its women who joined in for free.

Small is “building a really, really beautiful thing,” says Floyd. The community of women cheering each other on and having fun in the water together helped her move through her own trauma, she says.

She enjoyed it so much, she participated again the following summer, also for free through Shakti Rising. In September, Floyd was elected to Groundswell’s board and, she says, is now looking forward to giving back to an organization that has given so much to her.

Leanne Tibiatowski, another alumna, says Groundswell was instrumental in helping her restore her confidence and cope with delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tied to an incident of abuse during her formative years.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Small

Tibiatowski stumbled upon a Groundswell meeting while walking her dog on the beach. She saw a friend of hers sitting in a circle of women, each with a surfboard, huddled around flowers placed in the middle of the group. Intrigued, she later asked her friend about the group and decided to meet up with Small to see if Groundswell would be a good fit for her.

Tibiatowski recalls feeling safe with Small, adding that her background as a mental health professional with experience treating PTSD helped her understand the magnitude of what Tibiatowski was going through. “I was impressed, and reassured, and excited to see what the future had in store,” she says.

Before her first session, Tibiatowski felt anxious and nervous, not only about surfing, but about talking about suffering from PTSD and facing her fears. But out on the water, she says she felt fearless as she popped up on her board. “Because I was with this group of sisters, I was more than okay,” she says.

Tibiatowski credits Small’s positive, fun, researched approach to surf therapy for helping her restore her confidence and says it may have even saved her life.

Taking Groundswell Global

Small grew up surfing and decided to attend Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), a school where the surf is almost as important as the education. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and counseling from Bethel Seminary in San Diego in 2010.

Small then began working in Monterey Bay, Calif., with the Wahine Project, which provides therapeutic surfing clinics to girls and women. It was a dream job, but she wanted to be closer to her San Diego home and there weren’t any organizations that provided surf therapy in that area. Rather than settle, Small decided to start her own nonprofit.

Soon after establishing Groundswell “to provide surf therapy programs that unite and empower women on the waves” in the United States, she began thinking globally. Her 5-year plan for Groundswell is to become an international safe haven where women can be part of a community that supports and encourages them.

She is getting closer to realizing that dream, having established Groundswell programs in Nicaragua, Cuba and Peru. And just like in San Diego, these international programs provide women an emotional outlet, while bringing attention to mental health struggles and the power of ocean therapy.  

Madison Elick, another 2018 PLNU graduate and international finance intern for Groundswell in Peru, says the patriarchal systems governing these countries results in a lack of opportunities for girls and women. Offering them a chance to surf and heal is “a reality check that you are part of something way bigger and way greater.”

Groundswell Peru volunteers team up with area programs like Hands on Peru, an organization that provides access to healthcare. It also works with an area organization that teach women how knit and sell the products they make.

Elick attributes Groundswell’ growth, in part, to focusing not on making a participant “better,” but on helping them to become who they truly are inside.

The nonprofit is thriving enough that Small was recently able quit her day job working as a therapist at a private practice to focus full-time on Groundswell. The change has required her to adopt a more spartan lifestyle, she says. But the “simple life, plus working hard and [having] an amazing community, has helped me do what I love.”

Posted: October 4, 2018

Jenna MillerA Surf Therapist Builds a ‘Really Beautiful Thing’ for Trauma Survivors