When Sarasota native and New College of Florida senior Michael Long was a freshman, he traded his 2000 Jeep Cherokee for a 1976 30-foot Santana sailboat with orange sail covers. Thanks to childhood fishing trips with his father, Thomas, the economics and public policy major was “comfortable staying between the markers,” he says. Sailing, on the other hand, was something foreign.
To add to the challenge, the boat was on the Caloosahatchee River, near Fort Myers, and Long had to figure out how to get it back to Sarasota. With the help of a friend for part of the trip, he succeeded and developed a love of sailing as a result.
Now, as a member of the New College sailing team, Long uses his passion to teach at-risk teens to sail through his nonprofit program, Sail Future. The program uses sailing as tool to work with youth who need a positive influence in their lives and who are going through challenges at home.
Sail Future’s intention is two-fold: Through the program, students not only receive exposure to sailing, but also to college life, and they receive academic support along the way.
Prior to Sail Future’s fall program, only two out of the eight high school students participating had been on a college campus. Some students were on a boat for the first time, and a few did not even know how to swim.
“Learning to sail shows them if they put work in, they can learn anything,” says Long. He hopes that by the end of the eight weeks, the students have a more optimistic outlook and a desire to improve their lives.
From the start of his community outreach, Long wanted to work with youth whom he says had “been dealt a bad deck of cards and needed a new opportunity.” As a volunteer with AMIkids, he used challenge sports, such as scuba diving and sailing, as a way to connect with youth. He thought sailing would make a great platform for a larger outreach program, so he formalized what he was doing and expanded upon it.
To get the program on the water, Long worked with Colin Jordan, director of fitness and recreation at New Collge, and Jeanne Viviani, office of research and programs. During the inaugural program last summer, New College students worked with Second Chance Last Opportunity to teach 9- to 11-year-olds how to sail on the New College racing team boats. Although Long considered the first program successful, he felt it would be more impactful for an older group of students.
To recruit students for the fall program, Long worked with Trish Allen, assistant principal at Booker High School, who identified students in need of academic support, or who had been struggling with behavioral issues. New College students provided tutoring to the high schoolers and then were paired up in teams of two to learn how to work together on the sailboats.
Until now, New College had been the primary sponsor and partner for the program, but, recently, Sail Future received a grant from the California-based Orange County Community Foundation, in partnership with The TK Foundation. In spring, it will become a full-fledged mentorship program. Ten mentors will meet with 10 students three times a week for academic assistance and to help fill out college applications.
But, this program will offer a new element: The sailing aspect will put both the student and the mentor on level ground because neither will have any sailing experience.
“Sailing eliminates the cultural barrier, because they’ll have to work as team and create a unique relationship,” says Long.
Sail Future will also branch out beyond the New College campus and recruit its mentors from the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee and Ringling College of Art and Design.
“The most important quality for a mentor is passion,” says Long. “It’s an awesome opportunity to give back, and, they get to learn how to sail for free.”
Long graduates in May, and, although he has plans to stay connected with the program, he’ll pass the boom to Abigail Oakes, who is a junior at New College. Long and Oakes both hope Sail Future has a lasting effect on those involved, especially between mentors and students.
“The absolute best thing I could hope for is that the kids we work with develop a lifelong support system within the Sail Future family,” says Oakes.
Contact Randi Donahue at [email protected]