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Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, considering my relationship with the ocean. Growing up on the Pacific, I’ve had many opportunities to experience the joy of playing in the surf and come face-to-face with the power of this massive body of water. On a personal level I know that getting into the water requires some level of bravery, some level of surrender and some level of respect. But I had not considered it a therapeutic process, exactly, until talking with Elsa Rivera and Erin Carey.

These two local women are part of something called the Groundswell Community Projecta nonprofit organization offering surf therapy programs for women. The San Diego-based organization runs programs in a number of places, including Half Moon Bay, for women in all kinds of circumstances—their Arms of Care program, for example, is for women coming out of trafficking, abuse and homelessness. Groundswell also has a program called Waves of Grief, for women experiencing all kinds of loss and trauma, that Rivera says was accelerated by the pandemic.

It is this program that will be featured in an upcoming episode of the National Geographic docu-series Impacta short documentary series produced by Wonder Woman of the movies Gal Gadot

Rivera has been part of Groundswell since its inception. She worked with founder Natalie Small on another project before Small, a licensed therapist, went on to create Groundswell. Now Rivera, of Monterey, serves on the board. She’s also actively involved in programs, like the one that was filmed for Nat Geo, out in the water as a facilitator. The Groundswell therapeutic process is subtle. The women, of all levels of experience with the ocean (or none at all) are introduced slowly and incrementally to the water. They get familiar, then comfortable, with the waves. If a fear or past experience is triggered in the process, there are licensed therapists on hand, on the shore, to talk through it. “It’s less about teaching [the women] how to surf—it’s more about having the water be the medicine,” Rivera says.

Rivera brought Carey in, as a participant, to the Waves of Grief program—she knew that Carey, who among many other things is a member of the Mid Coast Fire Brigade, was dealing with the impact of fighting the Dolan Fire. “The ocean is so powerful because of its bigness,” Carey says. “To feel small is really freeing when you’re dealing with trauma.” There’s also a metaphorical tie between the waves in the ocean and the non-linear experience of grief and trauma—the ocean “is always changing, just like we are.” Nothing stays the same forever, not even the biggest feelings.

And the ocean can teach us how resilient we are, Rivera says. The experience of being pummeled by a wave, and riding it out, shows the women that “I can get hit by something and I’m still strong,” she says. 

In addition to Carey’s story, the Nat Geo episode will focus on Kelsey Ellis, the Northern California programs manager with Groundswell, who recently lost her twin sister to Covid-19. The episode will be released on Monday, May 3—you can watch it on National Geographic’s YouTube channel

“Surf therapy needs awareness and validation,” Rivera says. “I believe that water in and of itself is medicine for human beings.”

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