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When Oceans Heal:
In Praise of the Jimmy Miller Foundation

| July 7, 2012

Therapy on the sands at the Jimmy Miller Foundation in California. (© Jimmy Miller Foundation)

Therapy on the sands at the Jimmy Miller Foundation in California. (© Jimmy Miller Foundation)

When I was eight years old, my family moved from Chatham, on Cape Cod, to Bristol, Rhode Island. While I had been “introduced” to the ocean in Chatham by my brother, who threw me into it, I hadn’t yet developed much of an appreciation for it until we moved into the house in Bristol. Then, in what would become a life-altering time for me, I learned to love and respect the Atlantic Ocean.

frank gromling flagler live coastal view columnistThe house we lived in had a direct ocean connection – it was built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, a classic American boat builder known for its innovative designs of fast sail and steam-powered vessels. A block from Narragansett Bay, my home served mostly as a sleeping and eating place when I wasn’t on or in the water. As I discovered the inner joys of play and work at sea, my love affair with the ocean and all within it came naturally. A special peace came over me when I sat gazing at the boats and gulls amid the endless sound of waves finding their way to shore.

From those early years, my love and respect for the ocean infiltrated everything I am and most of what I do. I am most at peace when I am on, in or over the ocean in pursuit of some activity that I’ve dreamed up or conned my way into. I am most at home and at peace when the ocean is within sight.

Because of this connection, I am not surprised that others derive similar enjoyment from the ocean. But recently I learned about a special program that uses the ocean to help those affected by physical and mental challenges to improve their quality of life. And in one of those strange twists of fate, I later found a personal connection with this program that made it even more exciting for me. Let me explain.

In Manhattan Beach, Calif., just a few miles south of Los Angeles in what is known as the South Bay, Jimmy Miller was a young man who lived life to the fullest. At 7, he discovered surfing, which would become one of his great passions. Perhaps the best way to feel Jimmy’s excitement about surfing is to share the words he wrote later in life for a local newspaper about that time: “I turned, kicked and started down the face. As soon as I was at the bottom the wave barreled. I was totally inside for the first time in my life, and without even trying, I saw water all around me. In front of me was a blue hole, with light entering in a perfectly round opening. Time slowed down, and I heard a light Whoooo as the wave’s energy pushed wind out from behind me. Two, maybe three seconds later, I was out of the tube with my mouth agape. It took me a moment to realize what had happened because, at 7 years old, no one had told me that a tube ride was the ultimate feat in riding a wave.”

Jimmy went on from his “grommet” (young surfer) days to become one of the best surfers in South Bay, even opening his own surf shop in 1998 where he shared his unique style with young and old, always focusing on the importance of safety, fun, and respect for the environment. Along the way, he graduated from the University of California-Berkeley, was a Los Angeles County lifeguard for 15 years, organized surf camps for kids, toured the world’s best surf spots, and worked tirelessly to help anyone learn to surf the “Jimmy Miller way.”

In his forty-second year, in 2004, after a series of difficult times, including mental illness and a shoulder injury that ended his surfing days, Jimmy’s life came to an end. In his memory, his parents and brother established the Jimmy Miller Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to help people challenged by physical and mental illness. From its website: “Through recreational, educational and mentoring programs, the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation will bring together surfers, educators, therapists, lifeguards and friends to help people affected by mental and physical illness feel the joy and healing power of the ocean and surfing.”

The foundation created an “Ocean Therapy” program that serves many different types of people. In addition to its “Ocean Therapy” programs for kids, many of whom have experienced physical, sexual or mental abuse, the foundation works with military veterans challenged by mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or physical disabilities, such as leg or arm loss. Its “Ocean Therapy” program for military veterans provides surfing instruction as well as discussion sessions and therapeutic support led by occupational therapists. This opportunity gives the men and women the chance to engage in the healing effects of the ocean, while being appreciated for their military service and sacrifice.

One part of the Ocean Therapy program that interests me is its connection with the Wounded Warrior Project at nearby Marine Corps facilities – Camp Pendleton and 29 Palms. As the Foundation’s website explains, “Through the Ocean Therapy program, the Marines are first taught the basics of surfing on-land and then learn to surf with a personalized surf instructor in the water. The sport is adapted to meet any and all limiting physical and/or emotional challenges, so that every participant is successful. The supportive environment coupled with the resilience and physical aptitude of the Marines, lends itself to some of the most miraculous novice surfing skills ever witnessed.”

As a kid, I often sat on a seawall and focused on the sights and sounds and smells before me. No medicine could have worked better. After I got my first boat at age 10, a story in itself, I roamed Bristol Harbor and Narragansett Bay for hours, discovering things about the ocean, and myself. Today, peace still settles over me when I’m on, in or near the ocean.

I mentioned earlier discovering a personal connection with the Jimmy Miller Foundation. It’s an interesting look at how connected humans can be and how life’s experiences can bring new friends, some with special meaning. Late last year at an environmental journalists conference in Miami, Jean-Michel Cousteau introduced me to Bob Meistrell, co-founder of Body Glove International, the iconic American surfing and diving equipment manufacturer. Bob and his twin brother Bill, who died in July 2006, have been great influences on the surfing and diving industries and related cultures since 1953. Through Bob, I met Jim Miller, a special consultant to Body Glove, with whom I also struck up a friendship. Bob Meistrell, Jim Miller and I soon began talking about a book project to celebrate Body Glove’s upcoming 60th anniversary in business.

Our talks and meetings led to my three-day visit to Body Glove’s headquarters in Redondo Beach, Calif., and the resulting agreement to write and publish their book in 2013. It was during that January 2012 visit that I learned that Jim Miller was the father of Jimmy Miller, and it was Jim and his wife Nancy, along with their younger son Jeff, who created the Jimmy Miller Foundation in 2004. When I met both Bob and Jim, I had an instant fondness for them, a sense of familiarity, as if I had known them previously. In an instant in California, it became quite clear to me. What I had felt was an inter-connectedness that comes from a common bond between people of like mind or belief. In this case, our mutual love for and understanding of the ocean’s healing capacity joined us together long before we met to talk business. As I am reminded daily, there are no coincidences in life.

Until next week, be well and do just one thing to help nature so those who follow may enjoy it as much, or more, than we do. Maybe, too, help someone you know who could use your support and kindness to overcome a personal challenge. Jimmy would be proud.

Frank Gromling is the owner of Ocean Publishing in Flagler Beach. Reach him by email here.

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5 Responses for “When Oceans Heal:
In Praise of the Jimmy Miller Foundation”

  1. sly fox says:

    Wonderful story, for the parents to take their pain of loosing a son & do something positive is truly inspiring. Living in FL all my life, I too have the need to be by or in the water. Perhaps its because NO ONE can control it, its wild and free. When I enter the water I’m transformed & all my worries just disappear.

  2. Frances says:

    And oceans do heal… Thank you for another great article.

  3. Songbird says:

    Very inspiring! The ocean does heal and changes a person’s life in many ways. Another group that does something similar, Surfers for Autism, will be in Flagler Beach on August 18th!

  4. Jeff says:

    Great story and thanks for writing it. A few small information errors. Jim never opened a surf shop. He started a surf instruction and surf camp business. One of the first in Los Angeles County. Also it was when he was 35 not 42 that mental illness started to affect him

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