A social worker-turned-yacht stew now brings the joy of boating to those in need of healing.
Debra Frenkel was a burned-out social worker in Chicago with a dream to be at sea. It was a dream with a deadline. “I wanted to be on a boat for [the year] 2000,” she said. “And at the end of 1999, I was on a 130-foot yacht as a paid stew in the Caribbean.”
That yachting dream would eventually set Frenkel on a path to combine her love of helping people with her love of boating — a path that would enhance not only her life, but the lives of thousands of others. Eventually landing in Fort Lauderdale, she teamed up with yacht broker John Weller, a fellow cancer survivor, in a plan to share the therapeutic effects of being out on the water with others. They began by inviting children with cancer to experience fun and sun aboard boats.
By 2006, this new direction had coalesced into the nonprofit Freedom Waters Foundation. In the first year, they hosted more than 700 on-the-water experiences in the Fort Lauderdale area. Now headquartered in Naples, the foundation operates in several Florida counties, including Broward and Palm Beach, and continues to grow.
“We estimate that we have impacted 35,000 individuals in the last 15 years,” Frankel said, “and we look forward to serving many more for many years to come.”
The way it works is that boat owners use their vessels to share the healing experience of being outdoors and on the water with people who would never experience it otherwise — children and adults with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, at-risk youth, and struggling veterans and active-duty military members. In 2021, program volunteers provided that opportunity to 2,248 people, including 509 children with special needs, according to Frenkel.
“Imagine a child, wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator, going boating with her entire family. She watches as dolphins play and splash about. Her grin gets bigger and bigger,” she said. “That’s the magic of being on the water.”
Freedom Waters is always in need of knowledgeable helpers, and yacht crew are a great fit, Frenkel said. Options include volunteering on the boats, teaching others to sail, helping kids bait hooks for catch-and-release fishing programs, creating a fundraiser, serving meals, or using photography/videography talents to capture beautiful memories. For captains, it’s an opportunity for a great crew team-building exercise. For yacht owners, it’s a chance to share their love of being on the water by sharing their vessels (all boat sizes are appreciated) for outings, or offering their boat for a sunset cocktail hour — dockside or at sea — to invite others to learn about Freedom Waters and how they can help.