Who's On Board?

The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation

When the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation (JMMF) was founded in 2004, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the memory and spirit of their dear friend and relative would live on to inspire others. Jimmy Miller was 35 when he passed away, and from his love of life, surfing and the community sprung forth the idea to start Ocean Therapy, an adaptive surfing program to assist individuals coping with mental and physical illness.

The vision for the non-profit organization began with Jim Miller, Jimmy’s father, and his son’s life-long friend Chris Brown, a JMMF board member and executive director of Campsurf. About a month after Jimmy’s passing, friends and family were looking for a way to honor his memory and had received a generous outpouring of praises and donations from the South Bay community. Jimmy—an LA County lifeguard, world-traveling surfer and the founder of Campsurf—had inspired many. “It’s hard to describe, but he just touched so many people in such a profound way,” says Brown. “There were literally hundreds of people approaching us, asking how can they help.”

“Surfing is the one place that, when you ride a wave, you can’t think about anything else.”

—Carly Rogers, director of programs for JMMF

Coincidentally about the same time, Carly Rogers, director of programs for JMMF and an occupational therapist who wrote her dissertation on ocean therapy while at USC, ran into Jeff, Jimmy’s brother, and wanted to be a part of a project that honored Jimmy—the man she had done Junior Lifeguards under. And from then on, the JMMF took on a life of its own.

The first test run of the Ocean Therapy program was with foster children from the Hollygrove agency in Los Angeles. “We knew during the first session that this just felt right,” says Brown. The idea was to go above and beyond the normal surfing experience and incorporate a mental therapy portion of the program. Before and after the children get in the water, they—along with the volunteers—talk about their feelings, their expectations, their fears and then later, their successes. Rogers notes that while many children start out scared, they report back in the circle that they feel braver afterwards–more accomplished–and they take these emotions back into their everyday lives with them, long after they have left the beach.

Recently, the JMMF decided to expand its reach beyond children and started working with active Marines between tours of duty at Camp Pendleton. Many of these soldiers are returning with PTSD and cognitive behavior disorders. So the JMMF Ocean Therapy program has not only served as a distraction from reality for a time, some Marines say it saved their lives.

“Surfing has an effect on your adrenalin, your senses … everything about it affects you,” says Rogers. She hopes the participants will take with them is the ability to apply this new adventure and this new environment to the next steps in their lives.

Rogers’ and Brown’s stories of life-changing moments on the ocean were countless. One man, who was told less than a year ago he wouldn’t walk again, was surfing just five days after taking his first steps. Another man said that he had lost all of his friends in war and his daughter to a drunk driver, and nothing had given him a reason to live until he tried surfing. In addition, Camp Pendleton reported the entire mentality of the battalion seems to have changed since the group started Ocean Therapy. 

But in order to run all of these therapy sessions, the foundation needs a lot of volunteers and equipment. Volunteers range from those in the water, helping the person on the surfboard, to those getting lunch and having towels ready on the beach–not to mention a certified therapist like Rogers.

While the foundation has been lucky until now, finding great fundraising opportunities and grants and getting generous equipment donations from Body Glove, Billabong, Surftech and Global Surf, the rapid growth rate of the program means a need for even more volunteers–especially those who are lifeguard-certified or trained surfers. It’s the sense of brotherhood and community that surfing offers which Rogers and Brown encourage volunteers to come be a part of.

The JMMF also needs funds, of course, so it holds two large fundraisers a year. In the fall they host The Jimmy, a surfing competition followed by a fundraising party with a live and silent auction. And just this May, the JMMF hosted Dig 4 Jimmy “Surf and Turf,” an event that combines surfing and volleyball.

“It’s the rush that comes with it that is a really great feeling,” says Brown of surfing. “There’s a combination of things in this program. There is the hardcore physically demanding aspect and the mental aspect of having to focus on the task at hand.” He continues by quoting the tag line of Billabong Surfboards: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”