Ocean Beach Town Council: Surf therapy for women, police walking the beat

During the OB Town Council meeting, Sept. 25, Groundswell Project founder Natalie Small describes how her ‘surf therapy’ program has helped dozens of local women.
(Savanah Duffy)

Groundswell Community Project founder and executive director, Natalie Small, made a presentation to the Ocean Beach Town Council on Sept. 25, but not with the typical PowerPoint or by “telling a little bit about herself” — she began with “waves of love.”

Small invited meeting attendees at the Masonic Hall to stand, and after they were on their feet, she made sweeping motions from her heart to the audience, explaining that part of her practice as a therapist is to see her heart as an ocean, with everything she needs inside it. Her movements, she said, were symbolic of sending waves of love from her heart to the community for giving her the opportunity to share information about her work.

Groundswell Community Project serves women overcoming “abuse, trauma, addiction, trafficking, self doubt, depression, anxiety, and displacement,” as stated on its website at

Groundswell, Small explained, began in 2016 as eight women surfing at OB’s Dog Beach. Today, Groundswell has served more than 500 women from Ocean Beach to Encinitas, to San Francisco, Cuba, Peru, and now Scotland.

Small said she started out as an art therapist, specifically for trauma recovery and sex-trafficking survivors. However, during an eight-week art therapy session she offered at GenerateHope (an organization that helps survivors of sex trafficking), the group found out about Small’s love for surfing.

“They’re like, ‘Take us surfing, we don’t want to do art!’

“And I’m like, ‘I can’t do that. That’s not my profession. My profession is therapy. Surfing is just my passion.’ And then as I started thinking about it, surfing is more than just a passion. It’s been the thing that brought me home ... a place to find myself. A place to find beauty. A place to be me. So why would that not be part of the therapy session?”

Small explained that one of the advantages to Groundswell is that, unlike a typical therapy session, the participant does not have to sit in a room alone with a therapist, reliving trauma or painful memories on repeat, only to go home and be alone again. Rather, Groundswell is a community experience that teaches the individual to face her fears, surrounded by women who are doing the same thing.

“This is the future of therapy,” Small proclaimed. “Therapy doesn’t have to be difficult. Therapy doesn’t have to feel like a burden. Therapy can actually be fun. And when we invite our bodies into that process, the magic starts happening.”

Small reported her group members have shown an increase in emotional expression, community engagement, awareness of trauma triggers and improved body-mind connections. They come from homeless shelters, Generate Hope clinics, domestic violence agencies, eating disorder clinics and may be women who are foster care graduates. But they are not categorized by where they come from, and no one knows where the other is from, unless an individual feels like sharing. It’s an opportunity to take a break from those labels.

“I surfed today, and am so unbelievably grateful,” said one woman’s typed-out testimony, offered during the presentation. “It seemed almost unreal. To let go of so many fears and childhood trauma in such a nurturing environment has truly changed my life. In saying yes to surfing, I said yes to my healing and yes to myself.”

Small invited the community to join #NoPlastic November — giving up a single-use plastic of choice for 30 days to raise money for Surf Therapy scholarships for women. Register at Small can be reached at

In other Ocean Beach Town Council news …

• Police walk the beat: Officer David Surwilo said although staffing is still “not great,” the San Diego Police Department will keep the OB Walking Team afoot. The team is comprised of two officers who walk OB from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., from the business area down to the cliffs. (Shift hours may be adjusted to offer support with projects or community needs and no officers were removed from patrol to be placed on the walking team.)

When asked why the hours start so early, as opposed to later in the day through evening disturbances, Surwilo said the purpose is to take care of certain issues before businesses open — such as addressing the individuals who sleep in the doorways of establishments and moving them along before customers or guests arrive.

“So, some of it is simply making contact, waking people up, offering services,” he said. “It’s not because we see somebody sleeping on the grounds of the library and we’re going to come up and arrest them. It’s not for that purpose at all.” He added the walking team will continuously offer help and services to individuals in need, even when those individuals repeatedly deny assistance.

Additionally, the topic of the City’s Safe Parking Lots was addressed. Surwilo said he is “a little disappointed because I don’t think they’re being used as much as they should be,” adding that it may be due to the location of these lots.

• OB Elementary updates: Principal Marco Drapeau reported the school has been recognized by Alliance for a Healthier Generation for being “one of America’s healthiest schools.” He also said the school’s air-conditioning project is almost complete, and the workers should be off campus by the first week of October. “Which will be awesome,” he added, as the audience chuckled.

He pointed out that technology upgrades are on their way, and by the end of October, OB Elementary School will have access to faster and more reliable Internet services.

Though the school did not lose any teachers this year (same as last year), Drapeau said he is keeping an eye on the school’s Title 1 funding. Title 1 is a K-12 program that helps schools with large concentrations of low-income students receive supplemental funds to meet students’ educational goals.

OB Elementary has steadily been declining in Title 1-eligible students, he said, and this decline might be a reflection of how expensive it is to live in OB these days: “So we might be losing that demographic. The district’s threshold is 40 percent. If you have less than 40 percent eligible for Title 1, you don’t get anything.”

In the past, OB Elementary has used Title 1 funds to purchase additional counseling and extra days of health technician services. “There are some parameters about what you can do with it, but if this money goes away, we’ll feel it. We’ll definitely feel it.” He said he would learn the outcome in the following few weeks.

—OB Town Council next meets 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23 at The Masonic Lodge, 1711 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.


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