Many in the boating community take for granted the wondrous feel of salt spray on your face, the wind blowing through your hair and rock and roll wave action under your feet. This isn’t so for those with special needs, from children, teens and young adults with medical challenges to injured veterans with physical limitations. It’s the beauty of organizations like Freedom Waters Foundation (FWF), based in Naples, Florida, that gives everyone a chance to see what life is like on the sea.
“There is a concrete and spiritual story to how our foundation came to be,” says Debra ‘Debby’ Frenkel, FWF founder and executive director, who is also a licensed social worker and who co-authored U.S. Sailing’s Adaptive Sailing Resource Manual with Betsy Alison, coach of the U.S. Paralympic Team at U.S. Sailing. “The concrete answer is I worked for another organization where I started all these programs. They closed their doors in 2005 and while unemployed my current co-founder, John Weller, who has worked 30-plus years as a yacht broker, and I continued to conduct boat outings for children with cancer and their families. In January 2006, John encouraged me to start my own foundation. I knew that offering therapeutic boating and marine activities did wonders from what I experienced personally and with my extensive experience with disabled sailing.”
Frenkel says FWF’s mission is to improve the lives of individuals with special needs, like those with disabilities, life threatening illnesses, youth at risk and veterans, via short voyages on the waters of South Florida. This for example, may mean an opportunity for some families who rarely get to do a fun activity together to do so out on the ocean. Or, providing a safe place on the soothing seas for camaraderie and relaxation for traumatized or injured veterans.
There are several programs in place for FWF to accomplish this objective. One is Weller Days, which started out as voyages for children with cancer and their families. Now, this program, named for FWF’s co-founder, is for anyone, of any age, with any disability and consists of 1 to 3 hour cruises of a variety of vessels. In another program, FWF partners with Colliers County Parks and Recreation department to provide adaptive sailing instruction on small boats. There are also fishing programs, including those that cater to groups of veterans in need of healing activities. Some kayaking and paddle-boarding has even been added to the mix.
“I think what my son enjoyed most was the sensation of the wind on his face while we were out on the water,” says Jeff Mitchell, who with his wife moved to Florida from the cold climate of Ohio in order for their 25-year-old wheelchair-bound son with cerebral palsy to enjoy more outdoor time. “Sailing or riding on a motorboat offers such a different feeling for him than on land and it’s an enjoyable social experience as well. I think what is most impressive about Freedom Waters is that it helps people to do what they normally would never do.”
Mitchell has expanded his involvement with FWF from parent to also volunteer. Volunteers are indeed the lifeblood of the organization. For example, an armada of local boat owners, proprietors of both private craft and larger commercial vessels such as day excursion and sports fishers, donate their time and use of their vessels. Those without boats, volunteers such as Mitchell, offer their assistance in a myriad of ways. This includes, in his case, serving as a guide to make sure there’s smooth sailing for all.
“The most important need we have is for people with boats,” says Andrew Cilla, owner of Luke Brown Yachts, in Fort Lauderdale, and board president who has conducted over 60 FWF trips on his 39-foot trawler and will be now doing the same aboard his 44-foot Nordic Tug. “It can be once a month or once a year. What’s nice is that there’s a shared benefit. It’s a special experience whether you’re a volunteer or one of the individuals or families going out for the first time.”
The FWF has two full time employees and over 200 volunteers which include boat owners, crew, office help and more.
Now in its 11th year, Frankel says, “We continue to build the FWF family on both coasts of Florida and maybe further someday. After all, our goal is to get as many people as possible out to enjoy the natural healing effects of being on the water.”