Freedom Waters Foundation connects kids with special needs and yacht owners for a day on the water.

Sea Trials

A volunteer flotilla allows a group of young people to leave their troubles on the dock, if only for a day.

Somewhere else in the world, it was a typical morning. But for nine families and a handful of volunteers gathered under the awning of the Coral Ridge Yacht Club in Ft. Lauderdale, there would never be another one quite like this.

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On a bright, sunlit day under an Alice-blue sky, the families and their volunteer hosts were at the club’s marina to embark on an outing called “Weller Days,” sponsored by Freedom Waters Foundation (FWF) a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic boat excursions for individuals and families coping with a variety of disabilities and special needs. The foundation also serves veterans groups as part of their overall mission. The hope is that such groups enjoy a day of relaxation and freedom, leaving behind their daunting tribulations, if only for a day.

In addition to Weller Days, the foundation also sponsors fishing programs, tournaments and adaptive sailing programs that teach people with disabilities how to sail. The boat outings, which began in 2004, were originally designed as soothing day trips for children battling life-threatening illnesses, but now include children and adults with disabilities, at-risk youth, veterans and others identified with special needs. Freedom Waters volunteers and local boat owners team up and donate their vessels, time and energy to “Make it Happen,” as the foundation’s slogan emphasizes.

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Weller Days are named in honor of John Weller, FWF co-founder and five-time cancer survivor. During Weller’s frequent hospital trips, he became inspired by the children he saw in different stages of chemotherapy. Weller, a yacht broker, contacted Debra Frankel, his friend and social worker, and promised that when he conquered his illness he would “take kids with cancer out on boats for a healing experience.” Today, more than 3,000 excursions are held annually throughout Collier, Lee, Palm Beach and Broward counties, with more than 231 volunteers joining over 100 boat owners to help make Weller’s dream a reality.

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“Freedom Waters Foundation is all based on love and community and bringing together individuals who may never meet otherwise, but share a common thread through their various health issues,” said Frankel, a co-founder and longtime executive director of the foundation headquartered in Naples, with a satellite office in Ft. Lauderdale. “Our volunteers generously share their hearts and love of being on the water and are always willing to help when called upon.” She added, “We are building a greater sense of community, with understanding and tolerance for individual differences.”

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Frankel has been involved in the development and management of programs like FWF since 1999. The organization’s ongoing success is a testament to her passion and dedication, and to the countless individuals and communities that have rallied to its cause.

The joy on the faces of the 73 participants was impossible to hide as they signed in ahead of the excursion at Coral Ridge Yacht Club. Introductions were made as boat captains greeted their charges. The families had been invited to participate with the help of Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital and other local hospitals and social service agencies.

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Eight boats took part in the day’s activities, which featured a cruise down the ICW through Port Everglades. After the cruise, the families would be treated to a barbecue prepared by the volunteers.

For some visitors, like 15-year-old Karen Benavidez, there were extra thrills in store. The young teenager, battling leukemia for the second time in five years, was on board a 41-foot Back Cove owned by Coral Ridge club member Elaine Sacco. Sacco was instrumental in arranging the FWF event at the yacht club, and was thrilled with its success.

“When I first learned about this event from Debra, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm,” she said. “I know how much pleasure I get from boating, and I never tire of it. Can you imagine what these kids and their parents and family members are thinking when they see the boat and then get aboard? It has to be the thrill of a lifetime.”

And it was certainly more of a delight for Benavidez when Sacco asked her if she wanted to take the wheel. The young woman, who was taking a boat ride for the first time in her life, was up to the task. With Sacco’s helpful instructions, she guided the yacht through the maze of boat traffic while her sister and other family members cheered her on. The broad smile on her face said it all.

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Bringing smiles to the faces of children and adults is something the FWF volunteers are desperate to accomplish, including Andrew Cilla, president of the group. “There are lots of big smiles and good times for all, and that’s why I’ve been proudly involved with Freedom Waters since its inception in 2006,” Cilla said. “You would be surprised how a few hours on a boat makes a difference to our guests.”

Volunteer Diane Perry was effusive in her praise of the day. “I was on Paul Penn’s boat and I was grateful to be included in the Coral Ridge event. Both Paul and Suzan Penn were gracious and happy to help our guest family have a great time on the water. It also touched their hearts to share their yacht with a Freedom Waters family.”

Perry said the family they hosted enjoyed views of the cruise ships, the working port, the drawbridge, the regatta “and the captain showing them the navigation computer.”

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In an email, the Shawn and Rose Byrnes family thanked everyone for their dedication and efforts in making the day happen: “Our 18-year-old daughter is a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital two years ago. The love and care she/we get from the FWF is heartwarming. All the complete strangers caring so much for us. The difference it has made to all of us is huge.”

Rose went on to say that, “We found all the employees, volunteers, boat captains and families at the CRYC to be friendly and concerned about our comfort and safety. We had a splendid time taking in the beauty and charm of the club and it was an absolutely wonderful, peaceful day that we will always cherish.”

It was obvious that on this pleasant Sunday, the foundation’s objective was met tenfold. As everyone arrived at the barbecue, there was laughter, lively conversation and an eagerness to recall the day’s special memories. For a moment, everyone was free. 

Learn more about Freedom Waters Foundation here. ▶

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This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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