When Michael Long entered juvenile hall at the age of 15, he had no idea he would one day be sailing the warm seas of the Gulf of Mexico with boys just like him, helping them chart a better path for their futures.
But when a staff member at his detention center helped him realize he didn’t belong behind bars, Long got serious about his education, got his life back on track, and taught himself to sail. He then went on to create an after-school mentoring program for at-risk youth as a college student.
Today, five years after launching that after-school program, Long is running a group home for teenage foster youth, complemented by months-long sailing trips. He lives in the house he purchased, with the help of donors, with six boys and three other staff – all under the age of 30 – in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Long and his team launched the residential program after watching their mentees succeed in the mentoring program but continue to struggle under the conditions of their lives outside of school.
“No matter what we did, those conditions were far stronger than any escape that we could create for our students,” Long says.
SailFuture’s two-year residential program is funded through contracts, individual donations and foundations and operates on about $450,000 per year. Earlier this month, SailFuture was recognized by local community foundations with a handful of awards, including a Knight Foundation Communities Award.
Long and his team have built a program that goes far beyond the typical group home. Florida foster youth must apply, go through an interview process, get accepted, and then choose to be a part of the SailFuture community.
“Through the intake process we show them a dream, an idea of what they can achieve,” Long says.
It’s not a tough dream to sell. The boys live in a waterfront home with a private pool, and just this spring sailed Defy the Odds, SailFuture’s lightning-fast 65-foot sailboat, in the Regata del Sol race across the Gulf of Mexico.
The model was built in partnership with the boys SailFuture has served, Long says, incorporating their feedback as the program has evolved over the years.
Participants complete a three-month sailing course, they attend high school taught by SailFuture’s staff, who have teaching certifications, and they get jobs.
A typical day includes school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., extracurricular activities, volunteering or work until 7:30 p.m. followed by dinner and lights out by 10 p.m. So far, the outcomes are good.
SailFuture partnered with Eckerd Connects’ E-Nini-Hassee Outdoor Therapeutic School for Girls to ensure it meets standard educational requirements. Since launching the mentoring program in 2013, about 120 of the 150 youth who have participated remained in school or went on to graduate.
Of the 12 youth served by the group home program in 2017, three have earned high school diplomas and are attending college and all of them gained first-time employment through SailFuture. Their average 60-day reading and math grade-level improvements are 1.5 and 1.4, respectively.
Youth in foster care are often at least a year behind their peers, research has found. According to a fact sheet published by Foster Care 2 Success, for example, the average reading level for 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care is 7th grade. Only half of foster youth graduate high school by the time they’re 18.
Anthony, a 17-year-old who entered foster care when he was 15, completed his GED in two months with help from SailFuture staff.
“I didn’t really have anything going for me,” Anthony says. “I was just being a bad kid, not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, skipping school. Until I came to the program I was a lazy kid. Now I’m ambitious. I want to get up and work and go to school and get a college diploma and just make something of myself.”
Anthony found the program while sitting around waiting for his social worker to complete some paperwork on his first day in foster care. He didn’t have a phone or anything to do, so she handed him a newspaper to read. In it he saw an article about SailFuture expanding into a residential program. He pressed his caseworker, his lawyer, his judge – everyone he could – to help him get into the program. It paid off. He got an interview with SailFuture staff, and was surprised when he got in.
“Personally, foster care is the best thing that happened to me and the only reason I say that is because of SailFuture,” Anthony says. “It’s a lot of work to be here, but in the end it all helps you. If you stick with it, this place is one of the best experiences you can get into.”
It’s the combination of an outdoor survival skill-building program with counseling, job training and education that makes SailFuture both effective and unique, Long says.
“It breaks the boys down completely and forces them to rebuild. When you get away from the environment and people and scenarios you know and get put into a new environment with completely different people, you have no choice but to change,” Long says.
For Zach, who is also 17 and has lived mostly in group homes since he was placed in foster care three years ago, getting into SailFuture meant he got to start new, and that has helped him evolve as a person.
“Coming to this program has taught me sense of patience I didn’t have before I came, how to connect better with others,” Zach says. “It helps you gain understanding about how you work, how your mind works and what kind of person you want to be.”
He’s also learned how to sail, and how to read charts to be able to navigate the ocean – skills not usually taught in the average high school classroom. And he appreciates getting to have an opinion about how things are done in the house. “If we feel like something isn’t right, we get that chance that we can speak up,” Zach says.
Both Zach and Anthony said they feel like the staff really listen to them.
Hunter Thompson, who was a college friend of Long’s, has been working with SailFuture for three years. Because he and the other staff live onsite, whether it’s on the boat or in the house, and the boys go to school onsite as well, the group ends up spending a lot of time together.
“That lends itself to developing these deep and authentic relationships, which I think is the undercurrent for everything we do in the program,” Thompson says.
Although he wasn’t in foster care growing up, Thompson says he identifies with some of what the boys go through – he, too, felt directionless when he was their age.
For him, the hardest parts are watching the boys deal with the effects of childhood trauma, letting them make their own mistakes, and grappling with realities of the child welfare system.
But Thompson sees the fact that all the staff are young – and knew very little about child welfare or foster care before SailFuture – as an advantage.
“We’re not afraid of trying new things and taking risks while trying to find what really works,” Thompson says.
Like any house full of teenagers, some form of discipline is sometimes necessary. And while the staff is still working to create a formal structure for positive reinforcement, technology is, for now, making a big difference in how they discourage unhelpful behavior when a youth gets off track. Through a partnership with a communications provider, staff are able to lock boys’ phones remotely, circumventing the need to physically remove their devices from their possession.
Even if they’ve been locked out of their phones at times, and they miss their biological families, both Zach and Anthony have nothing but good things to say about their time with SailFuture.
“The program is amazing, but it’s not for everybody,” Zach says. “You have to be at a certain point in your life, you have to be able to understand that you want to gain something from life and not sit around for the rest of your life. This is a program that believes in second chances.”
Zach shares more of his personal story in a recent video.
Despite all the negative attention that group homes have gotten in recent years, Anthony says, simply, “It’s an awesome group home. It’s more or less a family here.”
This fall, the SailFuture family is expanding to include another six-bed home for teens like Anthony and Zach and a school that will serve up to 40 students in foster care. Long and his team are also putting pieces in place to take over case management. Eventually, they will begin recruiting and training foster parents.
The dream doesn’t end there. SailFuture is looking further upstream at ways to help families avoid foster care involvement altogether.
“I love what we do,” Long says, “but if we can help kids like Zach not have to go through the things he went through in the first place, that’s the best outcome.”