A week learning to sail a Great Lakes schooner gives foster kids in Northern Michigan a bounty of reasons to believe in themselves. This Northern Michigan boating adventure, titled SAIL Champion, is “adventure therapy” for kids who have been placed into foster care or removed from abusive households. The outdoor event gives them the confidence and skills they need to get them through the years that follow foster care. This following story was first featured in the May edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Glancing at the ship’s wheel, the girl insists with all certainty, “I can’t steer.” “Yes, you can,” Captain Rorke says, and, just like that, Champion’s special brand of magic goes to work. The small blond girl sits down at the helm and wraps her hands around the spokes of the large wooden wheel. Because Captain Rorke has not only entrusted her with control of the boat, but further showed his confidence by walking away and leaving her to the task, she sees little choice but to rely on her own resolve and slowly begins to believe in herself.

The chill of morning has yet to dissipate, and the sun is stubbornly hiding behind a cover of clouds. At times, the horizon darkens in an ominous way. The girl at the wheel hunches against the wind inside a hoodie, its bright color a cheerful contrast to the gray morning. She has pulled her hair back in a ponytail, and her anxiety writes itself across her face in a worry of lines between her brows and the rigid set of her jaw. She checks the gauges, and checks, and checks again to be sure she is still taking the boat in the right direction.

She clearly is, as Captain Rorke calls out, “Excellent steering! You have smashed into nothing. That is the perfect amount of stuff to smash into.” Having gained his trust, she now begins to trust herself enough to chime in on conversations the girls around her are having about things like food and cell phones. Outwardly, the most remarkable thing about this day is Champion, herself. The 39-foot classic, wooden Great Lakes sailboat grows more impressive as she leaves the dock—and so do the five teenage girls sailing her. There is a lot of shouting from starboard to port to helm as the girls communicate with each other and Captain Rorke. This is only their second day on board, but they’re already proving expertise by teaching each other how to perform the tasks they’ve been entrusted with.

A slight young lady, whose energy puts the entire world to shame, has donned the spare “Captain Rorke hat.” She darts around the deck, drawing on her uncanny natural sailing ability to help her fellow crewmates. Soon, she begins urging the captain to let them raise the mainsail.

This is a question for the crew, he says, and the girls gather around the wheel for a short conference.

“Does everyone agree we’re pointing sufficiently into the wind?” Captain Rorke asks, and they use a sophisticated system of voting with thumbs up, down or sideways. The support is unanimous, so they set to raising the mainsail, and Champion is now in all her glory. While it is truly remarkable watching five teenagers pilot this marvelous boat, the most extraordinary part of this program is not the fact that they learn to sail—it’s what happens within each of the girls.

“This is not some happy fun-times kiddy camp for rich kids,” Rorke Miller, captain of the Champion, says later. “This is something where we’ve got one chance—one week—to change this kid’s life for the better and, damn it, I’m going to bet everything I can do it. It sounds so aggressive, almost arrogant. But we have the tools at our disposal to have a life-changing week every week.”

It would be impossible to overstate the challenges faced by the kids who participate in the SAIL Champion program. Many have experienced abuse at the hands of adults they were born to trust, and most have been removed from their biological families because they are endangered among those they love.

Agencies like Child and Family Services of Northwest Michigan and the Leelanau Family Court system refer kids to SAIL (an acronym for Success Always Involves Learning) Champion to participate in adventure therapy. The five girls on board this particular day in August came by way of Elements, an independent-living program at Child and Family Services that helps teenagers in foster care learn skills they will need when they age out of the system.

According to Joe Sanok of Mental Wellness Counseling, who founded SAIL Champion with Maritime Heritage Alliance, the key component to adventure therapy is “appropriate disruption.” Removing teenagers from their regular environment allows all their preconceived notions about themselves, each other and the adults on board—including the therapist—to dissolve around them.

“What a confidence builder, this ability to become an expert in something that even the day before or the minute before you weren’t an expert in,” Sanok says. “All of a sudden, you know how to take down the stassel and wrap it up and put it away. You know how to bring up the centerboard. And nobody else on the boat knows how to do that except the captain or the adults, so you’re like next in command.”

When children feel a sense of expertise, that just has a profound effect on their self-esteem and their ability to then see a different future for themselves, Sanok believes.

Champion gives the girls a place where their experiences up till now don’t have to define who they are, and they can instead begin building who they’re going to be, all week long. By noon, the sun has won its battle with the clouds, and its reflection sparkles across the open waters of Grand Traverse Bay. The warmth has finally dried the girls who dove off the boat earlier, braving the chilly waters and emerging textured in goosebumps.

One by one, the kids go below deck to talk to Anndrea Terry, Sanok’s colleague who is volunteering as therapist for the week. Julie Quinn, facilitator of the Elements program, says the kids are generally hesitant about therapy in their first days on Champion but become eager to participate by the end of the week. And Miller is convinced the lessons stick.

“In January,” he says, “when they’re having dreams of being out on Champion, either consciously or subconsciously, they will remember the counseling that was wrapped up in the experience.”

Everything on the boat is subtly crafted into a teachable moment, and these girls, who generally have very little control over their own lives, are given a choice in everything. When Captain Rorke announces the assortment of options for the afternoon’s activities, they again use their thumbs to reach consensus. Today, they will sail to Power Island and go for a hike.

After a lesson in navigating without GPS, the girls sail toward their destination, and Captain Rorke calls out reminders such as, “Are you remembering to believe in yourself?” The trees on Power Island provide a canopy against the sun, which by now is shining full force, as the girls map out their path. They wind along in bunches of twos and threes, and the woods play witness to Champion’s process of healing as the girls individually open up to Terry, Miller and Quinn over the next mile or two.

“I made sure to tell them (during their sessions), that counseling isn’t just this time. They can find any of us, at any time,” Terry says. “They kept seeking me out to continue the conversations we’d been having in counseling.”

Toward the end of the hike, the trees part, perfectly framing the mighty Champion anchored just offshore. Miller is convinced even simple moments like this make an impact. “In years to come, they will stand on the shore with someone and say, ‘Did you know there’s an island out there?’ It’s life changing.”

Back aboard the boat, the kids disperse for quiet time, and the adults take the opportunity to discuss why they hate defining children as “at risk.”

“They are regular teenagers coming from a bad situation,” Quinn says. “People label them as ‘at risk,’ but it’s not them—it’s the homes they are coming from. You’re talking about teenagers who were removed from a situation that wasn’t good. They’re not ‘foster kids,’ they’re regular teenagers. There is more to every story.”

Many kids in foster care become loners because opportunities to interact with their peers in a normal way are rare. Inviting someone over after school comes with the explanation that these aren’t your parents and this isn’t your home and going to someone’s house for a sleepover requires their parents submit to a mandatory background check with the state of Michigan.

“It stinks,” Quinn admits. “And when they get angry and they say it stinks, it stinks. I don’t know about you, but to go into someone else’s home and say, ‘This is where you’re going to live now,’ and it just happens—bam—you’re at home one day and the next you’re in the hall of an agency looking for a new home with all your stuff in a duffle bag. And you’re going to go where they put you and hope you fit in the puzzle. And you’re a teenager. I don’t know, that’s tough.”

On Champion the kids are all in the same boat, literally and figuratively. They learn on day one that they can have completely honest conversations with people who will understand them. They learn that they don’t have to feel so lonely.

Weeks later, on a dreary fall day, as a gray drizzle dampens the world outside, Quinn sits in her office at Child and Family Services and beams as she reflects on the things her kids have gained from SAIL Champion. Just being out on the water, in the sunshine and getting exercise, she says, is healing for the body, mind and spirit.

But the real magic of Champion is seeing kids whose self-talk is so negative—whose first reaction is ‘I can’t’—learn that, in fact, they can.

Quinn thinks back to the Friday morning of that week, that week in August, when she and Miller were chatting below deck while the girls got Champion ready to leave the dock. Suddenly, they realized the boat was moving. Climbing back on deck, they found the girls had become such accomplished sailors in the four previous days, they were able to pilot a 39-foot yacht entirely on their own.

And it was the small blond—the very same girl who days before was so sure she couldn’t steer—with her capable hands wrapped around the wheel, guiding Champion out of port.

Captain Rorke’s Next Mission

Rorke Miller, who was recently awarded the 2013 Old Pulteney Maritime Heroes Award for his work with SAIL Champion, left the program at the end of last season to begin a new nonprofit, Red 8 Boatworks. The program, which he founded with fellow former Champion captain Geoff Rudolph, expands on a small-craft building club that Miller started a few years ago as a way to give Champion alumni a place to carry over their positive experiences from their week on ship. “I’m totally sold on the concept of experience-based therapy,” he says. “So the boat building we do isn’t so much how do you make this joint or how do you use this tool, it’s more let’s just do this together and enjoy the experience together—by the way, you’re also going to take your 40 minute break with the counselor.” The Red 8 team includes Joe Sanok serving as programming consultant, Anndrea Terry filling the role of clinical director, and boat building instructor Adam Burks as program director. More information is available at Red8BoatWorks.org.

May 2014 coverMore Northern Michigan

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski