Yacht charts a path to promising future for former foster kids

Oct 14, 2021 by Scott Luxor

100-day voyage aims to provide life skills to former foster kids left to fend for themselves

For young adults who, at the age of 18, suddenly find themselves adrift at sea without a life raft, the I CAN Foundation is sailing to the rescue. Sean Ives, and Jeff and Kristi Wisdom have created an innovative program to help youths left on their own after aging out of the foster care system. You might say they will be training those to swim who have been barely treading water most of their lives.

Ives, a lifelong lover of all things ocean-related and owner of a yacht management company, met Jeff Wisdom through his charter business. “I’ve been working with him for about three years,” Ives said. “Over that period, we became good friends.”

Their friendship took on a new dimension in February, when Wisdom asked Ives if he could think of any new and unique ways to help children.

“He’s been a philanthropist for a long time and he wanted to engage me with that part of his businesses,” Ives said. “I immediately thought about the potential of taking kids on a sailing boat and sending them out to sea to learn life skills. That’s where the concept for the whole program came about.”

At that time, the Wisdoms were starting a nonprofit organization for foster kids called Fostering Success. “They mentor foster children from the ages of 14 to 18,” Ives said. One day, he and Wisdom were listening in on a conversation between Kristi Wisdom and the board members. “One of the things they were talking about was the problems that kids experience when they age out of the foster care system.”

At that point, a lightbulb went on in their heads.

“After talking about the serious problem that these kids face, we knew who would be perfectly aligned with our boat sailing program,” Ives said. “These kids have trash bags on their backs, with the few belongings they have. Often, they’re on the street, and they have to fend for themselves. So we created the program with that in mind, and with them in mind. We asked ourselves what would help these young adults.”

The foundation

The statistics about aging out of the foster care system are compelling. According to Ives and the I CAN Foundation:

  • Five million young people ages 16 to 24 in the U.S. are not in school or working.
  • Only one youth in 10 from low-income families goes on to graduate from a four-year college.
  • More than 23,000 children age out of the U.S. foster care system every year, and only half will have gainful employment by age 24.

The basic idea of the program involves a 100-day voyage on a sailboat named Wisdom, with a  target departure date in December. According to Ives, they will be looking for applicants who have demonstrated a strong commitment to self and others throughout their time as foster kids. This is important because they will work together in all aspects of running the vessel.

Those selected will sail 5,000 nautical miles over 27 days, circumnavigating the Caribbean and visiting more than a dozen destinations — all while learning life skills that include sailing, navigation, meteorology, seamanship, sea survival and scuba diving. 

Ives, a native of South Africa, said that he has learned many life skills, including self-worth and resilience, from his years on the ocean. “I was a sailing instructor for six years in South Africa, and through that whole period, sailing brought me a great deal of personal growth,” he said.

“I also learned about trusting crew members, particularly working as a team. You have a million different adversities every single day on a boat, and all you’ve got are yourself and your six crew members. Between all of you, you need to problem solve and you need to resolve the issues.”

Partnering with Wisdom 

Jeff Wisdom, co-founder of I CAN, is equally passionate about the cause. “This is a huge problem that we’re trying to address,” he said. “I got interested, because I’ve always been interested in kids who don’t have opportunities. I’m all about family and kids, and trying to even the playing field.” 

Wisdom took over a family business years ago, made it highly successful, then sold it so that he could focus on philanthropy. “Our philosophy was always about taking action and about giving back to the communities,” he said. “It’s about treating people how you want to be treated. I just found that that’s always worked for me, my family and my business.” 

Beyond their ocean voyage, Wisdom intends to create ongoing support to give the students a headstart in their adult life. “What we’re working on with this program is to set up internship programs and to build a community for the former foster youth.”

Everything he is involved in is about elevating people, Wisdom said. “So wherever this boat goes and whoever they come in contact with, we’re going to bring positivity and possibility in the process. I just think that’s what the world needs.”

Preparing for adventure

Although the program will be very structured from a safety point of view and there will be certain goals set, such as students learning to set sail and navigate on their own, it will still be very much an adventure in exploration, Ives said.

 “On the boat, we will have satellite phones, internet and Wi-Fi,” he said. “At every island we get to, we can pick up their Wi-Fi on local cell phones. But we are trying to avoid electronics and regular phones on the boat. Obviously they need to be able to be used for emergencies and for staying in contact for safety reasons, but our whole focus is on sailing, diving, going ashore and experiencing what the local culture is like in the Caribbean.”

That means no Instagram, no Facebook, no Twitter and no Tik-Tok.

“We want to immerse ourselves in the local cultures with this venture,” Ives said. “The crew is finding charities, organizations and schools where we can do outreach programs. Our foster kids will actually be going out to schools there and giving the students soccer balls, T-shirts and backpacks … and building an interactive community with the kids in the Caribbean countries.”

Ives emphasized that the plan is to make use of local talents and businesses along the way. “Every time we go diving with our students, we are going to hire a local dive company with local operators,” he said. “Every time we take the kids on a hike, such as in St. Lucia, where we hike through the rain forest, we pay a local tour guide. So we’re not only benefiting the students on board, but we’re benefiting the entire community where we go.”

The crew is key

Tyler Durland, dive master on the boat, said he’s excited about the whole crew bringing life skills to young people who are in dire need of a support system.

“I’m going to be teaching swimming, snorkeling and diving to the youths, along with some rescue and emergency first-aid skills,” Durland said. “That’s part of being on a boat. You need to be self-sufficient and really know how to handle situations and be able to deal with it, because you don’t know how far away help could be.”

A chef on board will be training the students throughout the voyage, he said. “That way, when they get back from the program, they might have cooking skills that they can use for life, and possibly a job. It’s what we call the ‘light a spark’ program, where we want to help them to find their passion.”

Durland said he thinks a variety of mentors is one of the strengths of the program.

“For example, we will have paramedics coming in to talk about what they do,” he said. “They are going to live with the youth for about three days. We will also have marine biologists, among others. All of those people are going to be coming to live and work with our students and showing them what they do.”

“We’re really just trying to prepare them for adulthood by connecting them with resources, mentors and helping them develop life skills,” Durland said. “It’s going to be an amazing experience for anybody — let alone somebody that has no community and just feels alone.”

To donate to the I CAN Foundation, click here or go to https://www.i-can-foundation.org/donate/