Maritime Heritage Alliance program helps at-risk youth

Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Dakota Agosa changed a lot in one week.

He built confidence and honed his communication skills, all while learning how to sail.

Agosa, 13, is among dozens of at-risk teens who will set sail on Grand Traverse Bay this summer aboard Champion, a 39-foot-long classic wooden Great Lakes sailboat. The boat anchors the SAIL (Success Always Involves Learning) Champion Program, which teaches teens life skills through sailing tutorials, teambuilding and therapy.

“I was more like an independent person. I liked to do things on my own,” Agosa said of his first day aboard Champion.

“Now that they’ve taught us about teamwork, I use it an awful lot.”

Bryan Smith co-founded the program in the summer of 2009 after longtime sailor Henry Barkhausen donated the sailboat to the Maritime Heritage Alliance. It took months to get the boat into ship shape, and Smith wanted to put it to good use.

“It’s a dual thing. We saved his pride and joy boat, and we’re using kids to do it,” Smith said. “It’s a perfect combination.”

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that the program now has 60 slots during a 10-week period each summer. Many teens are referred by Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan or through local family courts. A Rotary Charities grant funded SAIL Champion’s first three years, and it’s now kept afloat through smaller grants, donations and a weekly fee paid by the referring agency.

The ship’s crew has watched the kids transform in the week-long sessions. By day five the teens sail the boat all on their own.

“Watching these kids come together as a team, it’s real eye-opening,” said Jason Lombardi, the boat’s captain. “When they come on the first day they’re nervous. When they leave here they’re all excited.”

Austin Agosa, 13, plans to take the skills he learned on the boat with him long past the summer. His relative, Dakota, is on board as well.

Austin aims to graduate high school, attend college and travel the world.

“It’s a great learning experience for teamwork and how to collaborate with others,” he said. “You can use it to guide yourself to other opportunities.”

Each student receives one-on-one and group counseling daily on the boat. The calm, natural surroundings of the bay help the teens open up. It’s a less intimidating environment than a sterile office, program coordinator Elle Bodnar said.

“What we hope to see change in their confidence, their teambuilding skills,” she said. “It can spill over into life, real problems and real-life situations.”

Keegan Warner, 13, said he would recommend SAIL Champion to anyone his age.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

SAIL Champion coordinators want to expand the program, but tight funding and a short sailing season pose challenges.

This summer it is expanding to include high school and college students in Northwestern Michigan College’s Commitment Scholarship Program, which helps at-risk high school students graduate and attend NMC.