Boats, kids a winning act for smiles and fun

Boat owners host more than 150 youth, families and group home staffers for Take a Kid Boating Day.

By DEBORAH BLOCK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 31, 2007

For the members of the Take a Kid Boating Foundation and the Safe Children Coalition, boating means family.

"You can't help but smile when you're on a boat. Just being on the water is fun, just spending time together and being a family," said Ashley Fox, a member of the foundation's advisory board whose family was one of more than 15 boat owners that hosted more than 150 foster children, families and group home staff members at Fort De Soto Park for the first Take a Kid Boating Day on Saturday.

The event also included two larger boats at Dolphin Landing in downtown St. Petersburg.

Jim Dillon, owner of Passport Marine and founder of Take a Kid Boating, originally started taking underprivileged kids boating several years ago while living in New York.

"I often drove past an orphanage - they call them homes now, but I don't feel that adequately portrays the kids' situations," he said. "They are great facilities and people who care about the kids, but they are not homes. I wanted to do something to help."

"We put children on boats and there was a connection, like magic," Dillon said. "The hope is that some of the kids are adopted because of this magic, this day."

Dillon considered the New York venture a success, and wanted to do something similar in Tampa Bay.

About a year ago, he started organizing the foundation, and with the help of his friends, and the support of Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Bill Heller, June 2 was named an official state holiday, Take a Kid Boating Day. However, this past June 2, Tropical Storm Barry made landfall and the event had to be postponed. So Saturday they tried again and, according to the members of the foundation, it was a success.

"We had nothing but smiles, ear to ear, and we had a couple of new captains today. We taught them navigation and steering," Dillon said aboard his 16-foot Formula 400 SS.

The foster children and their families agreed. Alfred Floyd, who teaches MAPP training Model Approach to Partnership and Parenting to prospective foster parents, his wife, Carlese, a social worker for foster families, their biological daughter and adopted son came out to support the families they work with.

"Jared got a chance to drive," he said. "You should have seen his face. For a father, it was awesome."

And while the day is intended for the kids, their foster families also benefited.

"This is like a rescue for the parents. We can go back and tell the other foster parents, 'See, you're not alone,' " Floyd said.

Fox also believes that word of mouth will help strengthen the foundation.

"I think after this first event it's going to be easier to get other boaters. We really didn't know what to expect, but we'll talk to our friends and tell them how great it was, and other people will talk to their friends, and hopefully it will continue to grow," she said. "We'll be able to go back and say, 'In one day look how many kids you touched.' "

While the foundation's focus is to take kids out on boats, plans in the works include fishing tournaments, taking cancer patients and mentally retarded children out on boats, and fundraisers.

"The more funds we have, the more we can do for the kids," said Larry Hoffman, president of Take a Kid Boating Foundation. "This is the first step towards bigger and better things."

A major project under way is a training program, sponsored by Volvo, that would help pay for 16- and 17-year-olds to be trained to work in the marina industry - Florida's largest industry - so that when they age out of the foster care system on their 18th birthday, they would have the means to support themselves.

"Our primary effort is to take kids boating," but maybe someone will fall in love with one of these kids and help them out. That's our wish."

So far, the response has been good. The foundation has received several e-mails and phone calls from volunteers who were very affected by the day.

"The response from the children was sheer joy," said Kathryn McDaniel Ortega, the foundation's executive director, "and a lot of the adults who volunteered were touched because it put a face and a smile to kids in the program."

Deborah Block can be reached at dblock@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8269.

Fast facts

How to help

To find out more about Take a Kid Boating Foundation, go to www.takeakidboating.org or call (727) 804-3680.

To become a foster parent or help foster children in any way, go to www.sarasota-ymca.org or call toll-free 1-866-661-5656.