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Meet Natalie Small of Groundswell Community Project in Coastal

Today we’d like to introduce you to Natalie Small.

Natalie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am from North Carolina and my family moved to LA for a job at UCLA when I was 10. I went to elementary and middle school in the valley (Laurel Hall) and High School on the West Side (Marymount High School). The transition from small southern town to the bustle of LA was really hard for me…then when I turned 15, I started driving and discovered surfing which cultivated a deep feeling of home. The waves of malibu, county line, and manhattan beach gave me a sense of calm, peace, community, and identity. Surfing gave me a sense of home…

I headed south to San Diego for university to chase waves and a major in psychology and masters in Marriage and Family Therapist. I moved onto a 28ft sailboat in grad school to stay connected to Mother Ocean, my sense of home, while studying for my masters. I received training in how to use the arts for trauma recovery under Garciela Bottoni with International Expressive Arts Therapy Association and became a facilitator of trainings with First Aid Arts. I dove into found somatic and art therapy tools helpful in my private practice and small group therapy programs for women getting out of sex trafficking.

During one safe house small group therapy session, one of the women resistant to the arts asked if we could surf instead. My initial reaction was…”that is not therapy, that is just fun, we are here to do therapy”. But that week, as I reflected on what surfing has been to me and my own mental health, I recognized that surfing is what has been a quintessential element in overcoming my own struggles with depression and anxiety, body image, sexual abuse, and identity. So next session I gathered wetsuits, boards, and we headed to the beach. I held the same therapeutic structure but instead of painting, journaling, or dance….we surfed. Women who were closed off, not interacting, resistant to therapy opened up, connected with each other, and were present in their bodies for the first time in years. The women expressed experiencing joy, power, freedom, confidence, loving their bodies, and community.

We kept doing the sessions, opened up new session to women in the community, and the results were transformational. Everyone kept encouraging me to become an official non-profit, but my own insecurities fought back…I’m not a businesswoman, what if I fail, I’m not capable…..but when family and friends came together to make their first donation specifically for filing non-profit paperwork I gave in and decided to go for it. Since then, I’ve done a lot of personal work to step into this new identity… I am a nonprofit founder, I am therapist, I am founding a new revolutionary modality of therapy that is changing peoples lives

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Groundswell has gone from one small group therapy session serving eight womans to creating a therapeutic service and community serving over 800 women from California, Peru, Cuba, and Scotland. And it’s only been three years. So has it been breathtakingly invigorating?….yes! Do I know I’m living my life’s purpose?…yes! Do I get chills all over my body when I think about the work I am doing and am empowering other to do?…..Yes! Am I scared shitless?….Yes! Has a life-work balance been a struggle? ….Yes! Have I felt the struggle of being a yes person?…yes! (jajaja)

So ….yes… it has been a smooth flowing road and yes it has had its struggles.

I like to describe the process like what I imagine motherhood to be. When groundswell was a growing twinkle in my eye, all the other women in my office were taking maternity leave so I asked my boss for maternity leave as well. I shared how this project is growing inside of me and I need time off to really nurture it and let it grow into what it needs to become….he laughed and said no, so I quit and gave myself six months (the bare minimum of what maternity leave should be). In those six months I nurtured, listened to, and founded Groundswell Community Project

It’s first two years was true infancy, she needed my teet to survive. I left her with a bottle of my breast milk and a trusted and qualified babysitter only two days during this time. I poured all of myself into her…my bank account, relationships, and personal time were all revolving around her. I was juggling four different jobs (waitress, stew, cleaner, chef, sailing capitan…) to keep her alive… If my friends and family wanted to see me it had to be on her nap and feeding schedule. dating life?!?

This past year she started becoming her own little sustainable independent toddler…ready for a baby sitter. I trained others how to facilitate, provided a one day “Surf Therapy for Trauma Recovery Training”, brought on team members and started learning to trust others with my baby. My first time leaving her with a babysitter (aka professional and trained therapists and surf instructors) I sat in the parking lot the entire session with a combination of tears, prayers, and breathing practices. The second and third time I paddled out for a surf, lurking to see how she was doing, and finally the fourth time I let go knowing my baby is in good hands. And guess what?! She not only survived, but she thrived! And in the process, I got to reinvest in my friendships. I said yes to my dream man and got married, stopped working five jobs, and started surfing again just for me!

I have so much gratitude for all my family, friends, and husband as they dance with me so patiently and graciously along this process of actualizing my dream, my passion, my baby. And I know she will be a better being as I learn to let go and allow others to breath their own passion and voice into her.

Please tell us about Groundswell Community Project.
Groundswell Community Project is a nonprofit that provides safe and brave space for self-identifying women overcoming abuse, trauma, depression, anxiety, and self-doubt to find their own healing, empowerment, and community through surf therapy and ocean conservation.

Groundswell’s surf therapy programs are unique in that they are founded in research-based trauma therapy modalities restructured for powerful transformation in the surf. Our programs are not a one and done big day feel good event. These are epic with all the feel good butterflies, but the groundswell model is founded to build long term positive change, We run eight weeks small group surf therapy program that foster resiliency, hope, positive body image, emotional regulation, and community.

We are not an us and them/volunteer and participant nonprofit. We strongly believe that all of us our on our own unique healing journey and each of us have something beautiful and powerful to offer the world. So whether you are a volunteer or participant, pro surfer or just learning…we are all surfsisters ready to dive deeper into self-love, sea love, and sisterhood. Surfister participants become volunteers, donors, board members. For trauma and mental health does not care how much money is in your bank account, just as mother ocean does not care what labels the world and traumas have thrown in you…we are all surfsisters! And when we allow our truest selves to be expressed in the world, We ALL make the world more beautiful!

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
Started believing in myself sooner.


  • A $500 donation supports an 8 week surf therapy scholarship for 1 surfsister
  • A $250 donation supports 1 month of community surf therapy programs in Peru
  • A $100 donation provides surf gear for our surfsisters who have caught the stoke and want to continue their surf practice
  • A $50 donation provides 1 day of surf therapy for a surfsister in need

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