Boating is safe harbor for kids

A boat dealer reaches out to underprivileged children.

Published January 10, 2007

When he got on board almost three years ago, Jim Dillon had the idea that making boating accessible to more people could enhance the boat business. After having helped turn a failing Miami boat dealership into a hot commodity, he now wants to open the concept further and give back in ways that touch him personally.

"My favorite moments as a child were on a boat with my dad," said Dillon, who last year moved Passport Marine's headquarters here from Miami in part because he wanted to help less fortunate children have what he had. "If you've ever spent the perfect family day on a boat, you know what I'm talking about."

But lots of children don't have the chances Dillon did growing up in Brooklyn. He doesn't like to talk about his childhood, but he clearly feels he's in a better place now and wants to help others through the creation of the Take A Kid Boating Foundation.

"People are into boating because their families were into boating," said Dillon, 47, who lives on Snell Isle. "But imagine a life without loved ones. Imagine how difficult your life would be if you never got to hold your mother's hand or got a pat on the back from your dad."

Dillon is just beginning the work to form the foundation, but has already found volunteers to help. He hopes to get legislative and political support as well, and some cooperation from nonprofits that deal with foster and other underprivileged children. He's aiming to have the foundation pairing kids and boating families by this spring.

Passport is structured on the idea of expanding such possibilities for many people. The business model creates attractive financing and customer-care options so more people can buy boats and enjoy the water with their families. Passport actually subsidizes interest rates, packages total operation costs and aids trade-ins so the cost of boating comes into reach for more people, Dillon said.

"We're trying to make boating more democratic," he said.

Dillon, who has three children, said he was attracted to St. Petersburg because of the quality of life that also makes it the only place to start this foundation. He said he's found plenty of people willing to aid the process of creating the foundation.

"It's a pretty ambitious idea but there seems to be a lot of interest in it," said Kanika Tomalin, communications head at Bayfront Medical Center as well as part of Dillon's steering committee. "Boating is about possibility and hope. It can open the doors of the mind."

Tomalin said there are hurdles still, from developing relationships with existing organizations to clearing prospective boating families. And the foundation will require some money. Passport is already contributing, along with Dillon's film company, Fierce I, and Yacht Clubs of America and a company run by Dillon's partner, Andrew Sturner, called Vertical Yachts, which builds high-rise high-and-dry storage.

Charles Nylander also sits on Dillon's committee, is helping with his financial connections to the community, and plans to participate in the program as a family boater. Another boating member is Ashley Fox, who recently added to her family by adopting a 5-year-old foster child.

"A lot of people don't know what foster kids are about," she said, noting stereotypes of street kids with criminal tendencies. "These kids have been pulled from homes, but they can still lead a good life and be successful."

Dillon said he's hoping the interaction can spur other adoptions but at least aid understanding in all directions. He said he wants to create a movement around children and boats.

"I want to implant the idea in the child that this is possible, this is what a family is like," he said. "And for boaters, how about, for just one day, give a kid an opportunity to be out on a boat? I want to say to people who've made it, 'Remember what it was like?' "

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.