12 Oct Local Profile: Van Curaza of Operation Surf
Van Curaza of Avila Beach has recently gained notoriety for his charity organization, Operation Surf, through both an ESPN feature as well as a Netflix documentary. His charity supports wounded and injured active-duty military and veteran heroes through teaching them how to surf. Going from competitive surfer to founding a surf therapy charity wasn’t, however, exactly a straight line for Van. The journey of this ex-competitive surfer is nearly as compelling as those he helps today.
Van Curaza Opens Surf School in Avila Beach CA
Van was raised in San Luis Obispo County by a single father, which was an unusual upbringing during the 60s and 70s. He developed a passion for surfing as a young kid; his first surfing experience was on a rented blow-up canvas mat he rented from the Kelsey family. He and his friends caught waves and were instantly in competition to one-up each other. That must have planted the seed as Van ultimately went on to compete as an amateur surfer, riding big waves the world over. His childhood was, however, somewhat troubled, and led him down the road of addiction. Eventually, Van realized that he had to make a change and came out on the other side of recovery wanting to help people. It wasn’t apparent at first until a mentor pointed out to him how well he interacted and turned around those surf school students that may be considered “at-risk”. As he experienced more success with his students, he realized that he could truly make a difference by starting Van Curaza Surf School, which is still a thriving surf school in Avila Beach. Kids can learn surfing through surf camps that also include ocean safety and environmental awareness. As a result of his success with his surf school, in 2008, Van started his first charity the Amazing Surf School, to help at-risk youth learn to surf.
Operation Surf: A Pathway to Healing for Veterans
Shortly thereafter, he helped another charity organization that was working with amputees and decided to branch off on his own, opening up Operation Surf in 2009 under the umbrella of Amazing Surf Adventures. He partnered with Janis Roznowski, founder of Operation Comfort which provides recovery programs to veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center and Audie Murphy VA Hospital in Texas. When speaking of Janis, Van is visibly humbled. His work is greatly inspired by her example of service with Operation Comfort. He marvels that this journey began by a veteran hero working with Janis searching online for an “amputee surf instructor”.
Van found that his experience in healing from his own struggles helped him relate to the veterans, and vice versa, during the healing process.
Van isn’t a licensed therapist. As he puts it, “I’m just an effed up individual that knows how you feel.”
As a result, the program has helped scores of veterans overcome PTSD. The success of Operation Surf seems so simple and nearly unbelievable, however, Russell Crawford conducted a study (The Impact of Ocean Therapy on Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder published in 2016) that found participants experience a 36% decrease in PTSD symptoms, a 47% decrease in depression and a 68% increase in self-efficacy.
Avila Beach is An Ideal Location for Surf School
Van will be the first to tell you, however, that he is merely a piece of the puzzle. The waves themselves provide endless opportunities for success, part of which he attributes to the special location of Avila Beach. Avila Beach is not known for the “best” surfing per se, as it’s positioned in a harbor that breaks most of the larger waves. This low-key environment is the ultimate conditions for a classroom. Working in harmony with the bay Van has created an environment for success, which in turn creates an immensely positive impact on the participants of the program.
Since its inception, Operation Surf has launched three more programs in Santa Cruz, Huntington Beach and the UK. Through all the local and national buzz, however, he’s also careful not to lose sight of where he started: helping kids through his surf school, Amazing Surf Adventures.