Big-wave surfer Van Curaza has turned his past struggles into a drive to help veterans through Operation Surf, an Avila Beach nonprofit that specializes in surf therapy.
“I recognized how surfing helped me as a young kid, a teenager, an adult, a drug addict,” he said. “And that’s why I started my nonprofit.”
After getting sober and starting Van Curaza Surf School, Curaza had the idea for a nonprofit called Amazing Surf Adventures for underserved youths. He then worked with Amp Surf, a surf clinic for disabled veterans, before setting out on his own to start Operation Surf in 2009. Since then, Curaza estimates more than 300 veterans have completed his seven-day program.
“What I focus on is what you can do, not what you can’t do,” he said. “Not what you have or don’t have, but what it takes to ride a wave, catch a wave and ride a surfboard. They go off and catch a wave on Day 1. Right away, they just did something they thought they couldn’t do. It’s physical and spiritual.”
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In March, Operation Surf was featured in mini-documentary “Resurface,” which followed local groups using surf therapy to help military veterans cope with mental health issues. (The film aired at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.)
Curaza said seeing what surfing can accomplish with the veterans he has worked with has helped him realize his own calling.
“I’m proud of it because it makes me feel good, but it’s really hard when people say ‘You saved my life,’ ” Curaza said. “How do you take that comment lightly when all I am doing is just trying to give back and help somebody?”