Growing up in LA the surf culture is a huge part of many of our lives. For those families that live on the water the connection between community, family and ocean is a very special one. Today’s guest, Nancy Miller, raised her family in a beach community where surfing was a huge part of their lives. When an unexpected tragedy happened to their son Jimmy they knew their lives were forever changed.
Join us today for an inspirational story about the power of one family’s love and the incredible legacy Jimmy Miller has left on thousands with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation. An organization that uses adaptive surfing, to help children with disabilities, veterans, health care workers and so many more heal through their amazing work and the power of the ocean.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what THE Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation does?
Nancy Miller: The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation uses surfing and a form of adaptive surfing, that we created, to help those with mental and physical disabilities feel the healing power of the ocean. Knowing that what we know about how people react to being in the ocean, whether it’s the chemistry of their bodies, their joy, their happiness, and the complete giddiness of changing their whole mental well being when they go to the beach. So that’s that’s the basis of the Jimmy Miller Foundation. Teaching people to surf using an adaptive form of surfing and combining it with group therapy. The result is letting the healing begin for youth and adults all over the country.
Charity Matters: Did you have a philanthropic BACK-ROUND?
Nancy Miller: Prior to Jimmy Miller foundation, I was a wife, a mom, student, and my jobs have been everything to prepare me for what I’m doing now. I never thought that what I did in the past would so well prepare me for what I’m doing now. I worked with the Elton John AIDS Foundation when it very first got going, so we’re talking 1994. And I was lucky enough to be part of a incredible staff there and I did special projects for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which is a foundation that deals with helping those with HIV and AIDS.
After I left the Elton John AIDs Foundation, my husband came home saying he had met an amazing man from a board that he was on. His name was Jean-Michel Cousteau. Everybody knows his father, Jacques Cousteau and the Cousteau Society. Well, Jean-Michel had started his own foundation called Ocean Future Society. And after spending a week with him I signed on to help.
It was such a joy to work with Ocean Futures and Jean-Michel. All the people I met that were so they were absolutely consumed with making the world, especially our water world, safer and better for humans. One of the things that I loved best about Jean-Michel is that he was so non-proprietary. He wanted all the nonprofits in the ocean world to join together. They weren’t in competition to raise funds but they were there to help the world. The way they could help the world was by joining forces. So to me, that was a huge lesson in collaboration on a global scale that I was able to absorb. I just feel so lucky to have worked with these such exceptional people who have changed our world so much.
Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start The Foundation?
Nancy Miller: We were pretty normal Manhattan Beach family. My kids grew up in Manhattan Beach, California. And most of our family activities were all centered around going to the beach. Jimmy fell in love with surfing when he was seven. He knew from that age on that that’s where he wanted to be in that in that water space. That’s how he lived his life. So by the time he was 10, he was surfing in contests. After high school, before he went to Cal, he passed the Los Angeles County lifeguard test. So he became in Los Angeles lifeguard which was ultimately a life changing occupation for him. Jimmy was a scholar athlete. He got into Berkeley and started the first surf club it Cal ever had.
After he graduated, he started his company called Pure Surfing Experience. When he started it he wanted to bring surfing to everyone. He was running this company and he met and married a young model. Unfortunately, they separated after a few years. At this time, Jimmy had grown his company, traveled all over the world, teaching lessons, and he was writing newspaper articles. He tore his labrum in his shoulder and was going through this very difficult separation. And he had been the joy of everyone’s life and a golden light in the world, all of a sudden, he became very anxious and concerned.
There wasn’t any prior evidence of any mental illness in our family. With this injury, he couldn’t go in the water. When he wasn’t able to go in the water, it totally changed his body chemistry and his brain chemistry. Wow, it threw him into a real tailspin. In May of 2004, he had a psychotic break.
On August 7, 2004, he took his life and changed all of our lives. He changed the lives of everyone who loved him, the surf community and the lifeguard community. The community of Manhattan Beach all came together, along with friends all over the world, in disbelief that Jimmy had had this undiagnosed mental illness. Within six months of Jimmy’s death we began to plan a way to use surfing to provide self efficacy. A combination of a guided surfing adaptive surfing and talking about it or talk therapy.
Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?
Nancy Miller: For us, the challenges became finding enough volunteers. Those first five or six years, we really didn’t not have that problem. Being a being able to make sure there was an occupational therapist in part of the program. It’s not just about surfing, it’s about that talk therapy. It’s about having a therapist on on site at every single session. As we grew, and the numbers changed it was a matter of working overtime to find the qualified people to actually give the surf lessons.
Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and what your impact has been?
Nancy Miller: We’ve had four major studies about surfing and depression published in journals. We have served 5000 at risk children and over 150 Marines and veterans with PTSD. There are about 120 surf therapy organizations worldwide who all use our technique and process. So what our impact is right now is unbelievable. What started as a family foundation is now worldwide. When people talk about Ocean Therapy, surf therapy, the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation is where everyone got the basics.
We have now added Health Care Workers from the front lines of Covid who suffer from PTSD, depressions and suicidal ideation. Two hospitals are participating and their staffs have experienced significant anxiety reduction by surfing with JMMF. Our newest group is young adults with Special Needs from the Friendship Foundation. Their ages ranged from 18-35, and included non-verbals, on the spectrum, Downs Syndrome and more. Everyone surfed, rode a board on their tummy’s or standing up, and were able to share their experiences with exuberance and joy.
Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?
Nancy Miller: I think as I said, it takes a village. You cannot do something alone. It takes all it takes all of those inner people that are intertwined. And you need to be able to reach out and ask for help. It doesn’t just happen to you. Have faith in the process and being able to surround yourself with people who understand.
Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?
Nancy Miller: I really have. As I mentioned before, for the first five years, it was just too painful to talk about Jimmy. For me, it wasn’t how he died but how he lived. The big difference now is that I can talk about how he lived and what a difference his life made. So I think in terms of my biggest change is that I couldn’t have had this conversation with you. I just couldn’t have, it wouldn’t have worked. Now, I’m so happy to share his stories. And if I shed some tears while I’m talking, it is just part of the story. It is part of my mother’s story and this is a family story.
To learn more about The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation view their video Here
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