New special education teacher interlaces passion for surfing with teaching

Sydney Hilbush

Rhythmic waves crash gently over the ocean shore, washing away the light imprint of footsteps soaked up by the sun-drenched sand. The numbing water slaps against the smooth bottom of the surfboard, bracing for the right wave. A splash of cold water in the face fuels the adrenaline of Natalie Pepper as she steadies her board for one last ride before returning to her home just a few miles down the Bolinas shore, savoring the quietness that the ocean feeds to her soul.

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Surfer wipes out after forceful wave at Rodeo Beach.

Pepper, a 19-year resident of Bolinas and first-year Special Education teacher at Redwood, intertwines her passion for surfing with her devotion to her teaching career. After 11 years alternating between different schools in the district, she decided to settle down at Redwood this school year to teach Academic Workshop alongside Special Education.

Growing up in Michigan, Pepper developed a connection with the water from a young age as she was surrounded by lakes during her childhood. In 1998, Pepper decided to move to Bolinas with an old boyfriend, as a way to retain her love for the ocean.

“Every morning, I can just go down to the beach and take my dog for a walk. It’s not a bad life,” Pepper said.

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Members of the Surf Club steady themselves as they ride a wave at Rodeo Beach.

Although her interest in watersports developed from a young age, Pepper’s passion for surfing was only sparked by moving to Bolinas, as the opportunity for a daily swim or surf is just steps outside her front door.

“When you’re surfing, you can just feel the energy of the ocean. I mean even if you are just sitting on your board you can see little swells or wind picking up in the water. There’s something about the energy that soothes me,” Pepper said.

 

Pepper has expanded her devotion to surfing outside of school grounds while preserving her interest in assisting students with special needs. In 2012, Pepper created a nonprofit surf camp, Surfing the Spectrum, specifically for students and young adults with special needs and emotional disturbances. Her surf camp has expanded to provide surfing exposure to over 140 campers over the course of six weeks, providing the only opportunity for surfing lessons to those students with disabilities around the area.

“The most rewarding part is seeing the kids go into the water,” Pepper said. “Some of these kids are profoundly disabled, so they’re displaying stereotypical behaviors on the beach like flapping or vocalizing. But as soon as they get in the water, it’s just pure joy.”

As Pepper’s nonprofit relies heavily on student volunteers, she hopes to spark involvement with the camp through the newly created Redwood Surf Club. As the head advisor, Pepper hopes to expose the members to a different type of population in the water.

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Co-President of the surf club, Corbin Mason, smiles with his surfboard after catching a wave.

“Seeing how excited the kids get when they start working together is something that you would never really see or interact with on land, but in the water they are just all enjoying the same thing,” Pepper said. “It’s an important connection for everyone to make, especially regarding the social climate around special ed.”

The Surf Club is headed by two sophomores, Zan Curleigh and Corbin Mason, with similar interests in the sport.

“Not only do we want to create a surf community, but also help the environment and provide ocean awareness and give the opportunity to kids who wouldn’t necessarily learn about the sport of surfing themselves,” Curleigh said.

As the Surf Club was only created at the beginning of this school year, both Curleigh and Mason were surprised when their club received a large amount of traction from club day. The club meets on Mondays in room 163, and they currently have around 40 members ranging from experienced surfers to eager learners.

“We didn’t know there was that much interest in it. We didn’t know it was going to be popular because there wasn’t a surf club before this or anything,” Mason said.

In addition, the co-presidents were pleasantly surprised to find Pepper’s eagerness for the club’s progression. Pepper has offered to unofficially go surfing with the club on weekends and donate a few of her extra surfboards for the club’s use.

“I think we were really surprised to find a teacher with a genuine passion for surfing who was willing to put a bunch of her personal time into this club,” Curleigh said.

In the future, Pepper, in conjunction with the surf club, is looking to develop a surf team for Redwood to gain more attention and popularity for the sport of surfing.

“We know that there is a preexisting surf team at Tam, so we think it would be pretty cool to partner with them but also compete, and create the aspect of the actual sport of surfing to bring a more competitive side to the club,” Mason said.

In exposing Redwood surfers and students alike to the sport of surfing and the service in helping those with special needs, Pepper hopes to further expand her surfing nonprofit while bridging the gap between disabled and non-disabled students both inside and outside of school and the water.