Rachael Parker is the CEO and founder of Ocean Mind. As a Youth Worker with over 10 years’ experience, an avid surfer and protector and lover of our coastal environments she co-ordinates a surfing program for young people with personal struggles. She worked for many years supporting young people experiencing homelessness and those in the youth justice system.
Photograph by: https://www.cormacphotography.com/ Cormac Hanrahan
Rachael is passionate about using outdoor environments to create positive experiences and opportunities for young people to thrive. Since discovering surfing in 2015, she’s combined her passion for the ocean and working with young people to create Ocean Mind.
Q and A with ‘Destination Happiness’:
Which aspect of wellness is your current focus?
Ocean Mind’s therapeutic surf programs harness surfing as a tool to address youth issues such as mental illness, social isolation and disability. Ocean Mind’s alternative therapeutic surfing is community-based, recovery oriented and acts to complement clinical and acute care. The interventions involve young people aged 8-18 participating in six-week programs delivered by professional youth workers, surf instructors and a 1:1 trained local mentor. These programs are built on strong evidence based well-being foundations Some of the specific benefits in nurturing confidence, increased optimism, self-efficacy, and a strong sense of comfort and community.
The evidence is secondary only to the personal experiences that have given life to this program with a total of 105 young people who have participated in the six-week program, this program’s ability and potential is undeniable. The surfing mentors are local volunteers who are trained to assist the vulnerable young people and often see a similar improvement in well-being to those in the program.
When and why did your passion and purpose for supporting others begin?
Since I can remember I’ve always felt drawn to support others. When I was seven my parents decided to become foster parents. I didn’t know what that meant back then but my parents explained we would be looking after children whose parents couldn’t look after them. My brother and I quickly agreed to help.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing having new siblings; it came with challenges but also many moments of happiness. Over the years we had seven different children come and live with us and I learn to love them all as family. This experience has shaped me. We learnt at a very young age how fortunate we were, and the struggles other young people experience.
This was coupled with my personal experience with mental illness. At 16 years old I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It was a very dark time for me which resulted in an admission into a psychiatric clinic. This was the start of a very long road to acceptance and understanding. Learning the tools and strategies to help me live with my illness has been a long journey for me.
I now feel a deep responsibility to help others where I can. I concentrate my efforts on early intervention and creating communities that are supportive and available to children and young people when experiencing mental health challenges. Too often mental health is all about the negative. Sometimes just remembering that you can smile still, helps to shift a dark day. It’s important for these kids to have this opportunity through the Ocean Mind surfing program.
Who is your most significant inspiration?
Joe Taylor from the Wave Project in the UK has been my inspiration. He started running surf therapy programs 9 years ago, with the idea of helping kids struggling with mental health and disabilities to surf. He’s now able to support thousands of kids in the UK every year providing life changing experiences for them.
He was the reason Ocean Mind began here in Australia. Without his support and guidance, I wouldn’t have been able to start this project.
My mother is my biggest inspiration. She is the most amazing role model I could ever hope for. After taking years off work to look after us kids and fostering many other children, she returned to university completing her Masters in Building. Since returning to the workforce she has paved the way for females in one of the most male dominated industries. She has taught me to persevere through the storms, to be fierce and work towards what I believe in no matter what.
What other key people are part of your journey?
When I think of the key people on the Ocean Mind journey the first group of volunteers always comes to mind. This small group believe in the project and gave me the confidence and encouragement to continue past all the hurdles. They were instrumental in developing the organisation and I’m so happy to call them my friends. Most of this core group are still involved with the organisation to this day.
My family of course have been a massive support. On the days I wanted to throw in the towel they encouraged me to keep going and taking it one day at a time. The unconditional love and support I get from my family gave me the foundation to keep working toward making positive changes in young people’s lives.
What continues to motivate you?
Every time I have a new group of young people start on their 6-week journey I am reminded why I do this. The first day on the program is always a tricky one with lots of emotional challenges for both young people and mentors. We usually spend the first hour ensuring the group is comfortable with each other and developing their relationships.
My favourite moment and one that often brings a small tear of joy is seeing the whole group hit the water for the first time. Mentors and their mentees walking out into the big blue, ready to face this challenge together. At that moment I feel like my job is done. I can let the mentors and the ocean create the therapeutic environment to support the young people.
It’s amazingly motivating to hear from the kids what surfing has meant to them. So many parents send through letters of thanks and make sure we know what a life changing experience it was for their children.
The Ocean Mind family inspires and motivates me to keep developing the programs and creating more opportunities for young people.
What do you see as the next step in your journey?
I want to help as many young people though Ocean Mind as possible. Ideally, I would love to see Ocean Mind offered in many different communities, supporting more young people. For me this means I have to take a step back from running the programs and concentrate on the development of the organisation. This has been a hard choice to make but I think I’ll always find time to be at the beach with the kids no matter what.
We’ve recently employed a program coordinator to run the program which has been an exciting addition to the organisation. Jake was inspired by his involvement as a mentor to change careers and retrain as a youth worker. His addition to the team has meant we have can offer more programs thought-out the season, reducing the waiting time for the programs.
This year we have also embarked on a partnership with Deakin University to conduct the first ever control group study of therapeutic surfing. The results will assist in understanding the impact of therapeutic surfing on young people mental health and well-being.
Favourite life quote?
I have this one hanging up in my room. My mother game it to me a long time ago. It’s a good gentle reminder to never give up.
Never Give Up – 14th Dalai Lama
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up