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Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation Looks Ahead Following Loss

Jul 15, 2023 08:48AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A now-poignant photo from 2022 of Nancy Miller and Kevin Sousa at the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation's Benefiesta. Photo by Ken Pagliaro, courtesy of the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation.

The Manhattan Beach-based Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, still reeling from the untimely loss of its beloved program and clinical director Kevin Sousa, is looking ahead as it prepares to continue building its groundbreaking ocean therapy programs.

The foundation is set to host its biggest fundraiser of the year - the BeneFiesta - on July 22. Sousa will be honored with a special tribute at the event.

Sousa, an avid surfer and therapist who was a vibrant leader and steady presence within the foundation, passed away in May at age 52.

"The loss of Kevin Sousa leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of every person he touched in his years with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation," said Nancy Miller, mother of Jimmy Miller and board member of the foundation. "We want to encourage the community to attend this very special event, honoring Jimmy, Kevin and the Ocean Therapy Program - inspired by Jimmy and conducted with love, empathy, intelligence, skill, and such devotion, by Kevin."

Sousa's Contributions Leave Lasting Impact

The foundation's namesake, Jimmy Miller, was a Manhattan Beach surf teacher and global surfing adventurer who spent his life sharing his joy of the ocean with others. In Manhattan Beach, he founded what is now Camp Surf, where he was dedicated to sharing his philosophy and the method he developed for teaching surfing. After Miller tragically took his own life in 2004, his family created the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation to preserve his memory and share his love for the ocean with others. 

Since then, the JMMF pioneered and formalized the concept of ocean therapy programs through surfing and therapy sessions led by licensed therapists who guide pre- and post- surfing "talking circles."  

JMMF is currently the largest provider of ocean and surf therapy programming in the world. It has continued to introduce new populations that have suffered from some form of mental and/or physical trauma to the healing power of the ocean.

Sousa formally joined JMMF in 2018 - almost through "serendipity," said Miller - at a time when the foundation was searching for a new clinical director to replace founding clinical director Carly Rogers.

"I was at the Manhattan Beach Library, searching for an old newspaper article that Jimmy had written in the Easy Reader in the late eighties," said Miller. "I had opened up the large bound volume...and on the front page of the Easy Reader was a photo of Kevin Sousa, on his paddle board at the Catalina Paddle. The headline was 'Surfing psychologist recovers from addiction and heals himself through paddling the 32-mile Catalina Paddle.' I eagerly read the article about Kev, as I knew him to be a great guy who had volunteered for JMMF, played guitar for our events, and was a surf teacher for Mira Costa. I had no idea he was a psychologist. A lightbulb went off...and by Friday, we had interviewed Kevin, consulted with our JMMF Board, and Kevin became our clinical director."

Miller continued, "In the years between that serendipitous discovery at the Manhattan Beach Library to the unspeakably horrible week in May, Kevin helped grow JMMF in immeasurable ways, from training new surf therapists and supervising their progress, to the day he passed."

Andy Dellenbach, the foundation's CEO, said that Sousa's legacy was that he saw the enormous potential in ocean therapy, and he was able to "raise up" a team of therapists trained in JMMF's special methods. 

"Kevin knew he wasn’t going to be able to handle all of the therapy sessions by himself - so he wisely looked ahead and said, 'If we’re going to be helping all of these people, we need to have others who can join the team,'" said Dellenbach.

Dellenbach added, "It was also just a sign of a good leader that he wanted to train other people to take his place at some point in the future. But we all agree that his time came too soon."

Sousa facilitated the growth of the foundation's newest participating groups, from special needs young adults at the Friendship Foundation and Mychal's Learning Center; to healthcare workers from Torrance Memorial, Providence Little Company of Mary, and Ventura hospitals, who were suffering trauma, depression and PTSD from being on the front lines of the battle against COVID. 

"Each group presented different symptoms, but Kevin was able to integrate his surf skills, coping skills and sense of joy and health that the ocean always provided at each session," said Miller. "He especially loved our large groups of veterans of all ages, from the Veterans Village in San Diego. This group consisted of the homeless and addicted, and Kevin knew how to connect with each and every person during our weekend sessions held in Coronado. Kev opened many doors to the expansion of our ocean therapy program and was always our biggest ambassador as he traveled the country."

JMMF Continues Building, Looking Forward

Although deeply shaken by the loss of Sousa, the JMMF team has continued to expand and provide services. According to Dellenbach, in the year before the pandemic, the JMMF ran 35 ocean sessions; then in 2022 it ran 55 sessions. This year, the group is on track to run 75 sessions at nine locations between Coronado and the Oregon Coast.

"My vision for the foundation is that we create a network of ocean therapy organizations up and down the west coast - and then move onto the Pacific with locations in Hawaii, where we can reach large veteran and military populations," said Dellenbach.

(An ocean therapy session at Camp Pendleton. Photo via Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation.)

The foundation's staff of 20 currently includes seven ocean therapists, beach managers, a program manager, safety coordinators, and surf instructors that regularly lead surf instructions. There will be two licensed therapists taking on Sousa's job: Nick Borrelli will take over the military and veterans' programs in the San Diego area and Haley Falzon will oversee the programs in the South Bay.

The foundation also has a pool of more than 600 volunteers who have served and continue to serve at events.

Dellenbach said that one of the major goals of the BeneFiesta is to purchase a surf van for the foundation. The JMMF currently shares a van with Camp Surf, but with the growth of the program, organizers have determined that the foundation needs its own van that can cover the full service area from San Diego to Oregon.

Benefiesta Will Celebrate Sousa

The BeneFiesta will honor Sousa with a with a special video, as well as music from Sousa's band members, and a photo collage of memories.

Dellenbach added that the foundation was also planning to create some sort of community award named in Sousa's honor, most likely to be ready by the 2024 event.

The event's silent auction is now live here. BeneFiesta tickets are available here and sponsorship opportunities are available here. For questions about the event, contact [email protected].

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