Episode 41: Meet Natalie Small- Surf Therapist and Founder of Groundswell Community Project

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Show Notes

No one can gain immunity in this harsh and taxing world. We are constantly choked by its painful grip. More so, if we are at its core- the overly civilized cosmopolitan culture.  Perhaps one of the lessons humans have learned by living the urban life is that we all need to connect with nature once in a while in order to live and survive. However, regardless of where we live, undesired experiences may befall us and leave psychological struggles in the aftermath. The concept of healing with nature is not new. Our ancestors can attest to the fact that it is a part of our being. Whether we are in the woods or in the ocean, we are experiencing therapy at play.  It is an amazing phenomena that we cannot fully understand. Yet, we all know that we can never be separate from nature. 

Natalie Small lived with the ocean most of her life. Being away from the waters feels like leaving home. For that reason, she knitted her profession and love for the ocean together through Groundswell Community Project, a nonprofit that provides a safe space for women battling with mental health problems. Surf therapy is the main focus of the healing process, which serves in many levels.  Natalie believes that surfing is an art in which every participant can learn to create something beautiful out of their awful past. It offers not only a temporary fix, rather the skills learned from the course serves as a tool that participants can use throughout their entire lifetime. 

In this conversation, Natalie shares why our relationship with the ocean runs deeper than we thought. She also narrates the evolution of the surfing culture as it revolutionizes into something more balanced and sustainable.   Surf therapy is the marriage of modern healing modalities and the mystery of nature recuperation. As a Surf Therapist, Natalie also explains how surfing can have a lasting effect on recovery and why we need a community to help us along the way. And if you’re contemplating to establish your own nonprofit, Natalie gives some tips and advice on how to  “give birth”, “take care” and “sustain” it. The ocean can be our training field to face life’s adversities with all boldness and confidence. Like her, everyone can find a sense of “home” and calmness underneath the chaos of life. 

Episode Highlights:

03:41 Finding a Sense of Home
10:35 Bringing Back the Community in the Healing Process
17:25 Calm Underneath the Chaos
21:20 The Science of Ocean Healing
28:23 Bringing in the Feminine Balance to the Ocean 
32:04 Cultural Shift in Surfing 
38:44 “Birthing” A Nonprofit

The Oceanriders Podcast wouldn’t be possible without the participation of incredible guests and today’s is no exception. She’s an amazing human. Her name is Natalie Small and she is the founder of an also groundbreaking nonprofit called, Groundswell Community Project. It started out in San Diego, California and is now taking the world by storm with sister initiatives popping up all over the US and around the world. In fact, you can find Groundswell Community Project in Peru, Cuba and even in Scotland. Groundswell Community Project’s purpose is to improve women’s lives by helping them overcome PTSD, depression and other traumatic experiences. And they heal, thanks to surfing and the unconditional love of the ocean.

“The ocean is so powerful. Underneath all this chaos of all the white water, there's always calm.”

Natalie is a Surf Therapist and that’s what we get to discuss today. At such a young age, Natalie had an extraordinary life so far- from living on a sailboat for 11 years to bobbing across the world to help women and men overcome trauma. But today, she’s living a fulfilling life doing what she loves. And in this conversation, we get to know the person behind Groundswell Community Project and get some expert advice about launching and developing your own nonprofit as well. There’s some really good tips in this podcast. 

I hope you enjoy this episode.

Take care, have fun, and enjoy the waves.




Connect with Natalie:

Resources Links:

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“part of the problem is that... everything is so individualized, but we do need community.”

“Surfing has been one of my most powerful transformative tools and healing tools in my own life.”

“It's all about the process; it's not about the end product.”

“There's just so much similarities between what we consider art and what we consider surfing.”

“The ocean is so powerful. Underneath all this chaos of all the white water, there's always calm.”

“every person has something to give the world.”

“Happiness...is recognizing that you have something to give and then giving it.”

“Feminine energy needs the masculine energy and the masculine energy needs the feminine energy. To be able to balance the lineup is also inviting balance into our lives on land as well.”

“The ocean sees us all as the same and so we must all be the same out there.”

“It takes a village to raise a nonprofit. And so for those that are looking at starting a nonprofit… you don't have to do it alone.”


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The Oceanriders Podcast wouldn’t be possible without the participation of incredible guests and todays’ is an amazing human. Her name is Natalie Small and she is the founder of an oh so groundbreaking non profit called Groundswell Community Project. It started out in San Diego, California and is now taking the world by storm with sister initiatives popping up all over the US and around the world in Peru, Cuba, and even Scotland! Groundswell Community Project’s purpose is to improve women’s lives by helping them overcome PTSD, depression and other  traumatic experiences, and they heal thanks to surfing and the unconditional love of the ocean. Natalie is a surf therapist and that’s what we get to discuss today.

At such a young age, Natalie’s had an extraordinary life so far, from living on a sailboat for 11 years to bobbing across the world to help women and men overcome trauma, but today, she’s living a fulfilling life doing what she loves. In this conversation we get to know the person behind groundswell community project and get some expert advice about launching and developing your own non profit too. There are some really good tips.

So without further ado, please welcome Natalie Small.

Hello Natalie and welcome to The Oceanriders Podcast. How are you today?

Natalie Small: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.

Imi Barneaud: You’re welcome.

Natalie Small: This is really exciting.

Imi Barneaud: I know, I know. I can’t believe you’re in Peru, and it’s really sunny, and it’s really hot. And I’m in France, and it’s freezing cold, and it’s getting dark, but it’s just the wonders of technology. I guess for the listeners, do you think you could introduce yourself?

Natalie Small: Yes. I’m Natalie Small. I’m a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I’m the founder of Groundswell Community Project, which is a nonprofit that provides Surf Therapy programs to help women overcoming depression, anxiety, trauma, displacement to dive deeper into self-love, sea love, and surfsisters had together.

Imi Barneaud: Wow. That’s a really fascinating person that I hope we’ll be able to talk about a bit later on. But what kind of environment did you grow up in? Have you always surfed?

Natalie Small: I’m actually, I’m from the East Coast. I’m from North Carolina, but every vacation my family did revolved around the ocean. And so, my dad’s a sailor so we would go sailboarding on his like massive 10 foot sail board on the lakes in North Carolina. And then every vacation was around a beach or going sailing. And so, the mother ocean was always a huge part of where my family came together around, to spend time together. And then when I was 10, we moved out to Los Angeles for my dad’s job, and it just tore me to pieces. I had never lived in a big city before. I didn’t have kids in my neighborhood. I was used to being able to bike to school, and climb the trees, and have that freedom that goes along with living in a small town in the East Coast to LA where my mom had to drive me to everything, and the beach was 45 minutes away, and all those things. And so, I fall every time that we would fly into LA and wished, I just never felt home there. And then, once I started driving, I found a couple of guy friends of mine that surf on the Water Polo team. And so, they took me surfing for my first time. They put me on a shortboard. My dad supervised us, and came out in a Speedo, and swim goggles, and completely embarrassed me. And I got zero. Like, this is what you’re going to do. This is how you pop up at a wave. Just let’s go, and we paddled out. [inaudible] in Los Angeles, and I just got worked, and I came out and just loved it. And so, that was kind of like that spark where it’s like, I need to do this more. And so, started driving, and started going on my own, and got my own board. And that was what really helps me find a sense of home in Los Angeles. When all my family was on the East Coast, everything I knew that was familiar, was on the East Coast, but the ocean really helped me feel home.

“...the ocean helped me feel ‘home.’ ”

And so from there, instead of trying to go back to University on the East Coast, I ended up going to university in San Diego and went to Point Loma Nazarene, which is right on the beach, one of my favorite surf breaks in the world. I surf only there for four years. And my surf practice then was much more of a solo surf practice. I didn’t have or know a lot of girlfriends that surf as well. And so, I’d try to get my girl friends to go out with me, but they’d went wipe out, or just weren’t feeling it, or it wasn’t their thing. And so, I didn’t have a lot of like female surf community. And so, my surf practice was just for me. It was my time to be alone. It was time to connect to my emotions, and to feel at home. When you’re in college, and everything’s changing, and you’re making all these big life decisions, and it feels like the end of the world, then you go surf, and you realize like, okay, I’m still here, I can breathe, I can wipe out, and I’m going to survive. It’s going to be okay. And then, yeah, taught surfing in college for a bit, and then went into my masters, and surfing was still my self love practice. And then after my masters, moved to Argentina, and that was my second time living away, really my first time living away from the ocean. And that was really hard. I thought that I could do it. I was there for like a year and a half and it really helped me recognize how important mother ocean is for me. Even if it’s just looking at her, or being near her, or putting my feet in her. there’s something about looking at the expanse and the abyss of life that she contains, that is reinvigorating and re-life giving for me. And so, since then my life is very, very much so flowed with the ocean.

Imi Barneaud: Yeah, absolutely. Because you said that you lived for 11 years on a sailboat, now that’s really, really interesting. How much of your connection to the ocean is sort of strong. So could you explain what inspired you to stay on, living on a boat for such a long time?

Natalie Small: Yeah, I mean, it was a number of things, right out of college I’d been living in homes full of people. And all of my girl friends from college were either moving across the country, or getting married, or moving in with their partners. And I was like, I don’t want to go find an apartment live by myself. Number one, it’s really expensive in San Diego. And number two, I want to feel connected to community. I don’t want to be in another bubble, and then moving to my car bubble, and then to my work bubble, I want to feel connected to nature. And so, if I’m going to need to be in San Diego to do my masters, I need to be connected to the ocean. And this was right after coming back from living in Bhosari for a year and a half. And so, I was looking for apartments, I’m just really struggling with that transition of being in a bubble and away from nature. And my dad had been talking forever about moving our family back on a sailboat. And my mom wanted nothing to do with it because where would kitchen table fit on a sailboat, and where we’re our couches fit. And so, I was chatting with my dad and he was like, well, maybe we can get a boat together and we just don’t have to tell your mom. And then that way, it won’t really be my fault. And so, we went hunting for a boat and found a sweet little 28ft O’Day sloop that was perfect for one person, and I made her my home, and she was the first time I had lived alone. And so, there was all those emotions of learning how to be by myself. I didn’t have wifi, I didn’t have television, when I went home to her, I was forced to be with myself. And for the first year of that, I thought it so much. I would try everything possible like, Oh, well, I’ll stay with my girl friends tonight instead of having to go home. Yeah, just not wanting to be there cause I didn’t want to have to face being alone, and being by myself, and what that comes up, and what that brings up. And now, she is at the end of my day, I can’t wait to get back to her. She is my little sacred space, my fort. Everything in her has meaning to me, has come from different journeys, and different places in my life, and different people that have had meaning for me. And so, she’s become this container of my heart, and her name is ‘Mi corazón’, it was supposed to be.

Imi Barneaud: That is a wonderful story. So you were living on your boat, and doing a masters, and finding your first job, and everything, was that at that time that you decided to create Groundswell Community Project?

Natalie Small: Yeah. Within those 11 years, yeah. So within my masters, I got my Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy, and just knew that I wanted to be a safe space for people to explore themselves, and discover their own journeys and their own direction. And so, within that, most of the people in my program were going towards private practice, and through my personal experiences, and then also through my practicum and internships. Doing private practice felt so isolating for myself as a therapist and as an individual, but then also for the individuals I was working with. Most of the individuals were struggling from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, social anxiety, different things that are really isolating mental health conditions and experiences, or trauma. And so, how are we supposed to heal by ourselves when we are always by ourselves? And that’s part of the problem is that, especially within our society now, everything is so individualized. We go from bubble the bubble. We don’t need anybody. We are independent. We are strong. But we do need community. And I think healing, traditionally throughout history has been done within community. And so, being able to bring the community back into the healing process. And so, I found myself referring a lot of my clients to ocean as part of their therapeutic medicine, and then also referring them to different community groups to try to give them opportunities to connect with others and form those positive relationships and positive connections and recognize that they have something to offer the world as well. So after a while, I was like, well, this is, I keep on referring all my clients to the ocean, I should probably just go with them.

And around that same time, I was also doing art therapy through first aid arts. So they’re an organization that provides trainings for how to use the arts for people who work with people overcoming traumas, specifically those that are working in safe houses for sex trafficking, for women that are getting all sex trafficking. And so, I was providing training for those caretakers, and then also eight week art therapy programs for a group of women in San Diego that were getting out of trafficking. And I was doing our art programs, all of our art modalities, clay work, painting, movement, all that stuff. And they kept on asking me, when can you just take us on surfing? Surfing’s not therapy, we have to stick with our art modalities. And then the more I thought about it, I realized that surfing has been one of my most powerful transformative tools and healing tools in my own life. And it is an art form. Everytime you catch a wave, you are creating something, and every wave is a new creation and you don’t have control over that. It’s all about the process, it’s not about the end product, there’s just so much similarities between art. What would be considered an art, and what we consider surfing. And so I was like, you know what, let’s give it a try and see what that feels like. And so, one of the local surf shops suited the girls up with their own wetsuits and let us borrow boards. And we brought the girls out to ocean beach in San Diego for the first time. And we did the same exact structure as my art therapy program, but with surfing as the art modality. And it was incredible to see these women who were closed off, non-responsive, not engaging with each other or connected to their bodies in the art program, engaging with each other, laughing, smiling for the first time in years, connected to their bodies in a very powerful way, especially for sexual trauma.

There’s so much disconnect that you have to do in your body in order to stay safe, and so many labels that get put on you. And so, to be able to learn how to surf and see your body do something that you never thought you would be able to do is just mind blowing. And so many women that have gone through our program have said: “I never in a thousand years thought I’d be able to surf, and I just surf. And if I can do this, imagine what else I can do.” And so it just opens up those heart doors of recognizing all the potential you have within yourself, that it’s okay to fall, it’s okay to laugh at yourself, it’s okay to have fun. So I think that’s a big piece with working a lot with trauma therapy is that it’s so heavy, and all of us have experienced a little traumas in our life. And to have to talk about them all the time is heavy that you’re reliving them every time you’re talking about them. And so our program isn’t about talking about your experiences. It’s really about embracing the present moment, giving your brain and your body a break from the trauma experience, and experiencing this new experience within community where you are trying something new, you are experiencing fear, you’re experiencing your trauma triggers, but you’re also experiencing that you can overcome them, and that you can be safe, that you can be brave, that you don’t have to do it alone. And so, it’s just such powerful to see the women that I’ve been working with for months prior seen this instant shifts start happening within them. And so, we just shifted everything to the beach. And then the next summer, we opened it up to a group of women in recovery center, and the therapist that had been working with them saw huge shifts from just their emotional regulation and ability to connect with others, an ability to find joy in a day to also being able to decrease their medications.

“part of the problem is that... everything is so individualized, but we do need community.”

“Surfing has been one of my most powerful transformative tools and healing tools in my own life.”

“It's all about the process; it's not about the end product.”

“There's just so much similarities between what we consider art and what we consider surfing.”

Imi Barneaud: Wow.

Natalie Small: And so, it was just huge powerful shifts. So finally, two years ago, I was invited to go to the International Surf Therapy Org., and that was the first time that I had been around others that were doing Surf Therapy. And before that, I was nervous to call it therapy cause I’m a licensed therapist, I’m like, I don’t want to have my license taken away. Cause there’s all these BBS codes and all these different boxes that you have to check in order for it to be considered therapy. And so, I was really nervous about really speaking into it from a therapeutic lens, even though I knew what we were doing was very therapeutic. And so, going to this conference and getting to be around others from all over the world that were doing, they were calling it Surf Therapy, and they weren’t licensed therapists.

Imi Barneaud: Really.

Natalie Small: And so, I was like, you know what? I’m going to call this Surf Therapy. I’m just going to roll with it, and if the BBS or account gets mad at me, wants to take my license away, we can go to court, and maybe that’s what it takes. Lots of times, things have to go to court in order for them to become legit. So hopefully that’s not what it takes when you’re going through the steps right now. It’s like, build the research and do the things to be able to present it to camp as a legitimate therapeutic model. But yeah, so it definitely was a jump of faith. And just knowing that it’s working, and it is therapy, and it’s a really powerful new shift for the therapy field. And so, it’s a really exciting time.

Imi Barneaud: What’s your favorite story that one of your participants have had with Groundswell Community Project?

Natalie Small: We actually had, one of our participants are sisters. She had just gone through a divorce. Had never learned how to swim. She had been living in the Midwest. Her story was like, she’s like, I know I’m a mermaid inside and I’ve never gotten a chance to be in the ocean before. And so, I’m getting finally leaving this abusive relationship. And I’m going to move to San Diego. She didn’t know anybody there. She had no job. She had her daughter, and that was it. And they picked up and moved to San Diego, and she signed up for our, she was like, I’m gonna learn how to surf. But she has all of these interior thoughts and fears that going on for her. And so, she was taking swimming lessons while she was taking surf lessons, and it was the second to last session. We do an eight week session program, and it was the second to last session, and I was with her, supporting her in the waves. I was like, are you ready to go underneath this one? She was like, okay. And we held our noses and went underneath the wave, and she came up, and that was the first time she had gone underneath a wave. The entire time, she had always kept her head above water, making sure she felt safe, that was her safe place. And so, she went underneath the water and came back up, and it was just like instantly balling. And my initial reaction was like, Oh, my gosh, I just like re-traumatized her, like that wasn’t good. But then I like, therapy, and she’s like, no, crying is okay, it can be an emoting of a lot of different emotions. And so, sat with her, and held her in that space, and gave space for her. And when she could finally talk, she was like, I finally felt it. I understand why the ocean is so powerful. Like underneath all this chaos of all the whitewater, there’s always calm. And underneath the chaos in my brain, and my life, and everything that’s going on, I can always find that calm as well. And I started crying, it was like, it’s just there’s so many powerful life medicines that you can find in the ocean. And so, it’s just one of those things that, yeah, you, you’re like, Oh, I want to learn how to surf, it sounds like a fun sport. But it’s not a sport, it’s something that completely shifts your life, and like where are you choosing to live? Like what you’re trying to do for your profession? And where you’re traveling? And all those things start shifting. And she’s been doing our surf program. This was her third summer with us doing it, and now she’s standing up, and not needing to go in with a life jacket on, and just super excited next summer. She’s hoping to be a volunteer to be able to support other women that are doing the programs. And so, it’s just like, it makes me like jelly on the inside.

“The ocean is so powerful. Underneath all this chaos of all the white water, there's always calm.”

Imi Barneaud: It’s amazing. And I got an email this summer from a lady called Laura Flavien. I don’t know if that rings a bell, but yeah, she sent me a message, “You’ve got to get Natalie on the podcast because she got a really good project.” I must admit, I went off traveling, and then I got back, and I had a ton of work, so I couldn’t really catch up with this. But I’m so happy we’re having this conversation.

Natalie Small: I’m really excited, and it’s been fun because I’ve been seeing different surf sisters that I’ve known from different [inaudible] popping up on your podcast.

Imi Barneaud: Really.

Natalie Small: I’m like, Oh, my gosh, this is beautiful. Like Becky Mendoza from Changing Tides Foundation, and Trace Lane.

Imi Barneaud: Yes.

Natalie Small: She actually came and did our Surf Therapy program in Peru last summer, and we’re collaborating now to do something with X-Expedition, which is all women sailing program, and they sail all around the world on a 70 foot schooner that does, like cliques ocean trash, and then they go into the local communities and do ocean conservation projects and programs. And so, we’re looking at doing some projects together in Baja, and who knows, maybe sailing in Indonesia, maybe, Bali.

Imi Barneaud: That’s terrific.

Natalie Small: So it’s really exciting to see the different ladies that you’ve had on your podcast, that’s great, people out there right now.

Imi Barneaud: That’s terrific.So what do you think it is about the ocean that actually unleashes those emotions or those feelings that they didn’t unleash when they were doing art? What do you think was the trigger?

Natalie Small: I think there’s a number of elements to that. So there’s like, there’s your brain, and your body, and your spirit or self that are all connected. So if you read Blue Mind’s a great book that dives into a lot of the brain science, like neurology of our bodies on ocean, and brains on ocean. But I think one of the elements specifically that I see often with our surf sisters who are overcoming traumas is that every wave is kind of like a mini trauma. And so, our brains are literally getting to relearn. So when trauma happens, when we’re born, our neurological pathways are all connected and they’re flowing together, everything’s like flowing. And then when trauma happens, our brains like, well, I don’t want that to ever happen again. So I’m going to do whatever I can to make blocks to keep that situation, that experience from happening again. So our neurological pathways shift in order to keep that thing from happening. And then once we experienced, so let’s say there were chocolate chip cookies that were baking during sexual trauma, and so the smell of chocolate chips might be a trigger for you because that was a sensory experience that was happening during a traumatic experience. So our brains may be like, Oh, chocolate chip cookies, danger. So you might throw up, you might have a panic attack, and you’re like, why am I having a panic attack? What’s going on? Cause it’s not, during trauma, our brain, or like thinking brain goes off and our animal survival brain kicks in to keep us safe. So basically when we’re surfing, all of our senses are being, not attacked but engaged.

So we have the sense of touch, we have a sense of smell, we have the sense of taste, we have the sense of sound, the sense of sight, like everything is being engaged in a really strong way. So when all of our senses are engaged into the present moment, we’re no longer able to fly to a traumatic experience. And then when we do fly there, we have those senses of the ocean to help bring us back. So an every single little wave is like this little trauma that happens of like, I’m gonna fall, I’m gonna fail, I’m not good enough. All those insecurities and all those different fear thoughts pop into our brain. But then we fall, and it’s okay. So where our brain is learning like, Hey, I am safe. I can fall. I can fail. I am enough. And it’s able to regrow those neurological pathways in a way that’s going to slow again. That’s going to allow you to fully be yourself rather than not being able to go into someone’s home because they’re cooking chocolate chip cookies. So it seems like, what does surfing have to do with a sexual trauma? It has everything to do with that healing process because our brain wants to heal, our brain wants to keep us safe. And so, it just needs to learn that we are safe in order to heal. I think that’s one of the biggest pieces and feedbacks that I get from a lot of our participants is that, that element of like I am being triggered. It’s not like I’m not experiencing any triggers, I’m not experiencing any fears, or self doubts, or any negative thoughts. Those things are happening, but I’m flowing through them, and I’m overcoming them, and then I’m going back and doing it again. So you’re constantly retraining your brain to remember and realize that I am okay. And then specifically with sexual trauma, to be able to turn your body from something that’s been a sexualized object to something that’s strong, and powerful, and capable is extremely powerful. So you’re reconnecting your brain with your body and not just anybody, but a strong, powerful, full of possibilities. So there’s tons of stuff, but those are two of the big ones, from the experience.

Imi Barneaud: That’s fascinating. So how many of your participants actually become regular surfers? Do they adopt the surfing lifestyle after they finished a session or a course with you?

Natalie Small: Yes, that’s our goal. So the goal is that this isn’t, because that was one of my struggles with private practice therapy as well was that, you see a client and then they leave. So it’s like, what tools have they been able to go away with? And so with surfing, this is a lifetime practice. So our goal isn’t, we’d tell them from the very beginning, our goal isn’t to make you a professional surfer. Our goal is to make sure that you have the skills and the tools that you need in order to keep getting it, and to keep your practice going, and to have your practice be a practice of self love and see sisterhood and not just a new sport that I can check off my list. That’s why we do an eight week program where women are coming once a week for eight weeks and getting to go through all the different elements of being in the ocean, being with a board, forming that relationship with mother ocean, forming our relationship with your surfboard and with your body. So by the end of those eight weeks, they have a full toolbox to have a surf practice of their own. And then we do weekly paddle outs, and we have once a month women and wave events to bring the community together outside of the ocean because we’ve noticed all of the, or one of the pieces that I really love is that all of the woman, every woman, every person has something to give the world. By our women and wave events, we invite the surf sisters that have gone through our programs, it’s like, what are the gifts that I have? What are the things that I use for self love outside of surfing? And how can I share those with the community? So we’ve had women do vision boarding classes, acro yoga classes, how to paint waves, workshops, all different types of workshops of what the women in our community, like, what they love? And what they would like to share? And that’s, one of the highest levels in the positive psychology, happiness scale is recognizing that you have something to give and then giving it, that’s one of the elements. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel like you have anything to offer the world. And when you recognize that you do have something to offer the world, you can find happiness, and you want to share it. So at the end of our eight week sessions, we do our final day as a certain service day, we all get together, we share our stoke with another community. For the last three summers, it’s been with a community of teenage girls that are refugees from Syria. We do a surf day with them, and bring them to the beach, and share with them our stoke for mother ocean, and get to surf with them. And two of the girls are turning 18 this year, so they’re going to be able to join our eight week session this next summer, which is really exciting to have them to come join us for a full session.

“every person has something to give the world.”

“Happiness...is recognizing that you have something to give and then giving it.”

Imi Barneaud: That’s excellent. My mind is blown by the amount of creativity and the amount of how you’ve actually understood the whole kind of, how you’ve applied the whole set of principles of community and taking it further than just than the therapy sessions, and that the women can actually meet each other again. And that must be such a blessing for all the ladies that participate. That’s fantastic. So what is it, from your experience, what does with women’s surfing that actually brings something special to the lineup? Because it’s our sisters, we’re talking about surf sisters, is it something special with women that you’d like to work with as well?

Natalie Small: Yes. One place I’ll start, well, I’m in career right now, so we also run programs in Peru. And my first experience in Huanchaco, Peru, I was paddling out every day, the only, occasionally there’d be other expat women in the water, but I didn’t see a single local woman surfing. There’s lots of men surfing, local men surfing, but I didn’t see a single local woman surfing. And I was like, where are the women at? Like this is, Huanchaco is the birthplace of surfing. It has a really rich historical connection to mother ocean. They have their own word for her, Mamacocha, and there’s a burial site of a mummified Queen, which they have that you can go and visit. So there’s so much rich feminine culture, and rich ocean culture here. And then the ocean is also the dirtiest ocean I’ve ever surf at. I’ve never gotten sick from surfing before, and here I got sick from surfing. So there’s a huge disconnect between that, like caretaking mother ocean and humanity. So being able to making mother ocean assessable again to local women, and that’s reconnecting them with their roots, and with their culture, and with their story. And when you reconnect with mother ocean, there’s nothing else, like you can’t imagine not wanting to save her, and keep her clean, and make her surfable for generations to come. And I think there’s so much power in the ocean, and there’s with the moon, and her tides, there’s so much feminine connection with that. And that’s actually one of the things that we talk about in our programs is our tides, her tides, her flow, our flow, her connection to the moon, our body’s connection to the moon, and how our bodies are the same percentage of saltwater as the earth is, percentage of saltwater, and the same salinity of the ocean is the same salinity that we spent nine months in the womb.

There’s so many beautiful connection metaphors that come along with the ocean. So to be able to call her mother ocean gives the sense of, like we’re literally coming home, or may go to her. Just like we would be going back into the womb, we are going back to her. So being able to create a safe, brave space, we are going to recognize that they do belong out there as well. And I’ve had many of my Geiser friends say that they appreciate it when women are out there, because we bring in femininity, a balance to the lineup. So I think there’s, like, surfing has been like many sports, it’s become a competitive sport. So there’s a lot of those classic characteristics that come along with competitiveness and even see it in the business world. The business world used to be much more levels, and competitive, and tearing each other down. And now there’s more women in the business world, and so there’s more of that circular connection what’s pull each other up. And it’s the same with the surf world. I think there’s a lot more recognition of the ocean being a healing tool and a community space rather than just something to conquer. So I think that feminine energy needs the masculine energy, and the masculine energy needs the feminine energy. So to be able to balance the lineup, is also inviting balance into our lives on land as well. It’s fun to get to see that that balance playing out as more women are surfing, there’s also more women in the workplace, and we’re creating more balance in the world, in the feminine and masculine, rather than it being one weighted on one side or the other.

“Feminine energy needs the masculine energy and the masculine energy needs the feminine energy. To be able to balance the lineup is also inviting balance into our lives on land as well.” -

Imi Barneaud: That’s beautiful. And it’s true. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That’s lovely. So what do you think about the representation of women in surfing at the moment? Is that something that bothers you?

Natalie Small: It actually really excites me because I see a lot of change happening. I think it was three years ago was the first big-wave women’s surf contest. When that happened, I was like, wait, we don’t already have one? I assume that we were already surfing big-waves and doing contest for that. So I was just like mind blown that that wasn’t happening yet. I think it was last year, there became equal pay in surf contest for men and women, and I’m like, wait, really? We didn’t already have that? So I think, I’ve just always assumed that the ocean sees us all as the same and so we must all be the same out there. And I forget that they’re still our cultural norms, I get pulled out there at times. So seeing women stepping up, and women in the surf world stepping up, and doing the, like making things equal in the ocean, and that just bleeds into how things happen on land as well is really exciting. I mean, you can even see at target,the bathing suits at target are more, for people being active now rather than just like sitting on the beach and not moving. I legitimately like buy a handful of target bathing suits and surfing them, and expect my boots on to pop out, so it’s great. So there are cultural shifts that are happening. And I think that comes because, like, I appreciate all the time our dollar is our strongest vote. And so, if we are wanting to vote for a clean ocean, we need to be conscious consumers in putting our dollars towards companies and organizations that are doing that. From where we buy our food and what we’re buying, from the clothes we buy, all that sort of stuff is an opportunity to vote for balance of feminine and masculine, and for ocean conservation. And so it’s, I think it’s a really exciting time of shift and change. One of our first Surf Therapy trips was, and actually one of the things that like spurred, Groundswell becoming a nonprofit was, I went to Cuba, originally just to go cause I’m like, they’re going to open the gates, I need to get there before it gets changed and infiltrated by the United States. And all of a sudden I had like seven other girl friends that wanted to come as well. And so I was like, well,we’ll make a big trip out of it. And whenever I travel anywhere, I always try to reach out to local surfers and see if there’s any ways that I can help out or support them in anything.

And the president of the Cuba Surf Club was a woman, and she was one of the only women that were surfing out there. And she’s also going back to school to work with kids with disabilities. And she is a dolphin trainer. And so, she was bringing kids with different disabilities to interact with the dolphins and swim with the dolphins. And she was using her surfboard in order to do it after aquarium hours. And she was worried that if she went and surf, cause the break in Havana’s pretty gnarly, she was like, if I go surf and I break the board, then I won’t be able to bring the kids into the water with the dolphins and it’s so therapeutic for them. And so, I could really use another surfboard. Yeah, of course we can do that. So we came and we brought surfboards, specifically for women, and taught her how to teach surfing so that way she could teach new girls and the new generation of female surfers in Peru, or in Cuba. And it’s been like that sisterhood and that bond that happened there, was just so powerful. We don’t speak the same language, we have completely different cultural upbringings and experiences, but yet the language of surfing, language of mother ocean connected us beyond any language possible. And the guys there were sharing how they don’t have any surf culture or surf infiltration of certain media stuff. So they’ve really created it all themselves. And to them, the guys there, when they see a woman surfing, they think bad ass. They think that woman is a revolutionary. That woman is striking out and walking her own path. She is going against the grind. She is one bad-ass lady. And so, there’s no like, Oh, it’s all about the butt shot, or like the cute bikini, or like, there’s no sex appeal when it comes to surfing in Cuba. So they really like getting to see into that mindset of like, yeah, every time she paddles out, she’s a badass, and it’s not easy. And there’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t paddle out because it was a very hairy break. And so, to get to reframe women’s surfing as women taking that step of doing something for themselves, and standing up for who they are, and needing to let go and take up space in the world, I think that’s really more of what I see surfing as, and where it’s growing towards rather than the sexualized centerfold button.

“The ocean sees us all as the same and so we must all be the same out there.”

Imi Barneaud: Yeah, it’s a really good transition cause right now you’re partnering with Patagonia, and donations will be doubled by Patagonia. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Natalie Small: Yeah, it’s super exciting. We got a grant from Patagonia last year. We do, November, we do no classing November, and so we invite everyone to give up one plastic or all types of plastic for the whole month of November. Kind of like a Jog-A-Thon. And so, you invite your community, donate a dollar or two, or whatever for all the days that you go plastic free. And the goal of that is after 30 days, you’ve created a habit. So it’s difficult to go back to using that plastic after you created a lifestyle around not using it. The idea is to create long term change. Patagonia supported us in launching that project, and they’ve just, they’re an amazing company. Like really carving the way of how companies can make quality products in a quality way. And so, so yeah. So it’s really exciting to have them doing that match. And our hope with the match is to be able to raise the funds to train some of the first women’s surf instructors in Huanchaco, Peru. And so now all the local surf instructors are men, so to be able to train local girls that they have the skills, they have the confidence, they have the ability to do this, and now they have a career opportunity. Because that’s really the main industry in Huanchaco is the surf industry. So for girls and women to recognize, like, Oh, not only do I belong out there, not only can I have fun out there, but yeah, I can be an instructor, and I can be a leader, and I can support my family by doing this. Our hope is to be able to raise the funds to provide the SA level one, Surf Instructor Certificate for them, and then to be able to keep the Groundswell Casita open year round. So that’s hiring local women to run the Casita, that way the local girls and women have free access to boards, and gear, and surf community throughout the year. That’s our hope topics.

Imi Barneaud: This is so exciting. That’s amazing. And so, maybe we can transition to actually starting a nonprofit and managing a nonprofit. And I just wanted to know if you could walk us through a day in the life of somebody who’s created a nonprofit such as yours, what does that involve?

Natalie Small: Well, I like to compare it to giving birth. I haven’t given birth to a human child yet, but from spending time with my girl friends and the women in my life who have done that, that’s what the process has felt like to me. Literally, I was working at a homeless shelter as a social worker, and all of the women in the shelter that I was working with were asking for their maternity leave because everyone’s getting pregnant. And I was like, well, I’m not getting pregnant but I am breathing this project and I need time. It is consuming all of me, and I need time to take care of it, and to nurture it, and to let it grow. And they were like, no, that’s not a medical disability. You can’t have your maternity leave. Like, okay, well, I’m going to quit, and I’ll be gone for three months. And they’re like, if you want to come back in three months, you can come back. And so, I gave myself three months to really just dive into it, and birth her, and go through the whole paperwork process of that, and forming support, and the curriculum, and the programming. All my educational background is in psychology, so I’ve not taken a single business class, no finance classes, I have zero education in how to do this. So it was literally me just calling up different people, and be like, Hey, how have you done this? And I’m sure that’s similar to how lots of moms feel like, what’s going on? What am I supposed to do? The thing is crying, and I don’t know how to make it stop. So that was my birth and present took all of me, like 100% of me, my family and friends can contest to that, that I was breathing and that was my blood, that was my life. So about a year and a half, two years into it, I had gotten a part time job, work in a private practice again, and was working on boats. I’m a sailboat captain, and then I’m also a stew, and chef. And so, I was working on a couple of local yachts cooking, and then captaining a boat, and then working in a private practice, and then working at a restaurant, and then doing the nonprofit. So just doing all the things I needed to do in order to make the funds I needed, in order to start a nonprofit. And I don’t have a cultural custom of asking for money. So in my mind is like, it needs to come from my pocket. I don’t feel comfortable asking other people to support something until I can feel really confident in where it’s going and its trajectory.

So I can say that like, yeah, it was in its infancy years. And then this past summer was the first summer that I felt like she didn’t need my breast milk anymore, I could leave her with a babysitter, and I could start letting other people breathe into her, and give her love and support, and breathed their creativity and their ideas into her as well. So I trained local therapists and surf instructors how to co-facilitate and use the curriculum that I had built and to everything that was inside of me and put it on paper, which was the scariest thing ever, and that gave it to somebody else to let them run programs, and it worked. We got the same feedback, the same inspirations and healing processes that the women had experienced when I was running the program to when the facilitators that I had trained were running the program. And so, I, yeah, it was really exciting and gave me confidence like, okay. My child is like, she’s a toddler, she’s learning how to walk on her own, I can leave her with babysitter, she’s going to survive. She doesn’t need me in the same way that she needed me in the infancy stages. So now, I can start having more time for myself. I found love, and I just got married, and I’m able to start my own family in that way, and I’m able to invest more time with my family and my friends, and do things outside of Groundswell, and invest back in my community again. So my hope for this next year is to be able to continue that growth. And for me, everyone’s like, isn’t that really scary to give you’re, like it’s your baby over to other people. And for me, it’s like, no, this is exciting. This means that it’s going to get to grow beyond me. Like the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and I think it takes a village to raise it on Groundswell. It takes a village to raise a nonprofit.          

For those that are looking and starting a nonprofit, there are so many people that have done it before so you don’t have to do it alone. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and to reach out, and to, yeah, welcome people’s help and support because you don’t have to be the expert at everything, and you’re going to wear all the different hats just like a mom does with their child, and so, yeah, I felt like I was a single mom for a while and then I realized I have a whole community that wants to help me raise this child as well, and how much more beautiful she is going to be because other people are breathing into her rather than it just being me. So it’s a really, it’s a really exciting process. And very scary at times, lots of tears, and lots of laughter, and lots of just meeting amazing people along the way, interviewed a handful of them as well. So it’s been really fun to see all these different, this web of just bad ass women that have all come together through all their different nonprofits, and programs, and organizations, and businesses, and how everyone really comes together to lift each other up. I think it’s a really exciting time.

“It takes a village to raise a nonprofit. And so for those that are looking at starting a nonprofit… you don't have to do it alone.”

Imi Barneaud: Yeah, that’s lovely. I’m just so happy for you that it’s really expanding. And I saw on your website, taking your therapy courses all the way to Scotland, this is amazing.


Natalie Small: I don’t know how they do it. I went out there to do the initial training and help them get set up and surf with them. I was like, we don’t even run our programs in San Diego in the winter because it’s too cold, and they’re running there’s year round. Sally is just such a beautiful soul, and like such serendipitous connection of how we ended up coming together as well. And it’s just really exciting. Yeah, there’s been so many women from around the world being like, Hey, like this is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but I don’t know how to get it started. I don’t know what curriculum to use, and now Groundswell can be that tool for other women to be able to bring this to their communities. And so it’s, yeah.

Imi Barneaud: So how can we help, as listeners to join in or help you guys out somehow?

Natalie Small: Yeah, I mean, you can definitely donate, especially for the month of December, Patagonia is going to be matching those donations, so that’s like a double wave of love. And then if you are in any of the locations that we have programs, so up and down the coast of California, San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and we’re looking at starting a branch on the East Coast, or in Cuba, Peru, Scotland, and we’re looking at starting something in Spain. Just being able to wherever you are, see if you can volunteer. The more surfsisters, the better. And it’s all about building that community. So get involved, you can come join us in Peru, our surf sister summer camps start in January and run through February. So that’s a great opportunity to get involved and experience the community in action.

Imi Barneaud: So are you hiring volunteers and looking for participants? What’s the setup?

Natalie Small: Yeah, so we have volunteers who are surfsisters that have already begun their surf practice. And then participants are surfsisters who are looking to start their surf practice. So we really see that whether you’re a participant, a volunteer, or a facilitator, we are all on our healing journey. So just because you already know how to surf doesn’t mean that you’ve got all your shit together. We’re all in our healing journey from overcoming different traumas, addictions, abuse, depression, anxiety, or just needing community and support. So we all join in the process together. So, yeah. So whether you know how to surf or have never swam before, there is a place for everyone in the ocean with us. And so, yeah.

Imi Barneaud: Brilliant. So how can we get a hold of you? What was the website and social media.

Natalie Small: www.groundswellcommunity.org. Instagram is Groundswell Community Project as well. And then Facebook Groundswell Community Project. So Groundswell Community Project, you’ll find us on one of the things.

Imi Barneaud: Before we parked the bus here. I have four sentences that I love to ask my guests because there are some, often some really beautiful answers, and it’s just four sentences to finish. So the first sentence would be I LOVE.

Natalie Small: I love a good wipe out. I really do. It helps like snap me out of everything out of all my busy headspace. I’m like, lago, okay, I’m here.

Imi Barneaud: How about I MISS.

Natalie Small: Hmm, well I guess I’m in Peru right now, and we’re about to have our family and friends wedding. We just did our civil wedding. We’re about to do our like community wedding. So I think right now, I’m really missing having my community and family from the States here.

Imi Barneaud: How about I WISH.

Natalie Small: I wish that every woman, no matter where they are, has the opportunity to experience mother ocean, and to find a real sense of community, and belonging, and knowing that they deserve to take up space in this world.

Imi Barneaud: And the last one is I WANT,

Natalie Small: I want those in all of us that are overcoming hard things and healing from traumas to be able to go through that journey and that process with joy, and being able to find joy through that process.

Imi Barneaud: Oh, that’s peaceful. That’s a lovely way to conclude this interview, and it’s been an amazing conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to spend this hour with me. It has been a real honor to meet you, Natalie.

Natalie Small: Thank you, same as well.

Imi Barneaud: All right. Take care, we’ll go to groundswellcommunity.org, and all the social media as well to give you a helping hand and donations.

Natalie Small: Thank you.

Imi Barneaud: Take care. Thank you very much. See you.            

That was such an inspiring conversation : I can’t believe how much Natalie has achieved in so little time and the impact her project is having on women’s lives. It is truly remarkable. As Natalie was saying during her conversation, if you feel like donating, for the whole month of December, Patagonia is matching donations so by the time this podcast drops, you’ve still got a week left!  

I love the way Natalie has treated her project like a baby and the patience it requires to set something like the groundswell community project up. I also think that her genius move taking the time to create the tools to support her therapy is helping it spread to other countries and continents at such a rapid rate. This is so important when building a non profit or even a business : you have to create the tools and procedures to give it a life of its own even when you’re not around: it’ll avoid you going into burnout and help your project grow even faster. And this is probably how Natalie was managing to make this podcast from a wonderful location in Huanchaco, Peru opposite one of the best breaks in the country.

It’s wonderful to see how many interesting and eclectic jobs rise from the passion of surfing.  In fact, that’s what this show is all about. If you’re interested in finding more about the healing properties of the ocean, you could also be interested in my conversation with Alexandra Lia in episode 30.  She shares her very moving healing story

To connect with Natalie and support Groundswell Community Project, you can head over to their website groundswellcommunityproject.org or on Facebook and Instagram @groundswellcommunityproject 

All the links will be available on my website theoceanriderspodcast.com, you’ll find links, transcripts, quotes and photos of Natalie with her participants on the website, and all the show notes are in your podcast app too.

Thank you guys for listening to the ORP. I’m truly thrilled to know that you’re listening. Don’t hesitate to join the conversation on social media on Instagram @theoceanriderspodcast and on Facebook @theoceanriderspodcast. Links to it are in the show notes. If you have a project, a profession and something surf-related you’d like to share, join me for a chat, please send me an email to hello@theoceanriderspodcast.com and I will get back to you very shortly to set up a conversation.

I’m taking a few weeks off so the next episode will be back on Monday, 12th of Jan. with another awesome guest busting the surfing stereotype. In the meantime, I wish you all a lovely holiday season and the best year ever filled with waves of love.  

Take care, have fun and enjoy the waves! 



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