PACIFICA -- A Pacifica woman provides a safe place to gather in person to grieve and share community in the pandemic.
Kelsey Ellis helps people let go of their grief as they release flowers into the ocean.
"I want people to realize that they're not alone," Ellis said.
The Pacifica surfer lost her twin sister in March 2020.
Audrey, a healthy, 29-year-old nurse, died from COVID-19 complications before many knew what coronavirus was. Kelsey Ellis sought comfort in the ocean.
"I just have all these emotions that I just didn't know where to place them. And they're like, so big, When I'm in the ocean, I feel like I'm held in my grief," she explained.
Ellis, a certified grief counselor, started Waves of Grief in spring 2020. The free community surf therapy program has given people a safe space to drop in and share their grief during the pandemic.
People connect once a month at Surfers Beach in Half Moon Bay. Another group gathers in San Diego.
"There's a lot of deep sharing that can happen, then we all go in the ocean together. And I think the ocean has a way of washing away emotions and everyone comes out feeling energized and invigorated," Ellis said.
She is no stranger to serving others. Ellis has worked for several years as Bay Area programs manager, recruiting and training volunteers for the Groundswell Community Project.
The San Diego-based surf therapy nonprofit helps folks heal from trauma like addiction and abuse.
Before that, Kelsey's helped empower human trafficking survivors at Amy Schuman Lynch's nonprofit ARM of Care.
"She's amazing. That's just the way she's wired - to love and care for people," Schuman Lynch said.
People like Kacey Dodd, who came to Waves of Grief to find community amid the isolation and loneliness of COVID.
"It's not just to cry. It's to laugh and play. We play in the ocean. I think that's the magic," Dodd said.
And for Michelle Queano Slavik who lost her husband three years ago, surf therapy has been just what she and her two sons needed.
"You have connection, you find courage to speak your story. You feel held," she explained.
Waves of Grief has served about 250 people. The free sessions are funded by the foundation that's named after Audrey Ellis.
"I hope she would be proud," said Kelsey Ellis. "Life is way too short. It's so unpredictable. What matters, what you leave behind, is the impact you leave on people."
So for creating a safe place for people to heal in their waves of grief, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Kelsey Ellis.
Waves of Grief is expanding to sessions for teenagers age 14 to 18. More information is available at the Waves of Grief website.
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