Why I Started a Charity for At-Risk Youth
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
I first entertained the idea of starting a charity in 2010. It was at a Lyle Lovett concert at Humphrey’s By the Bay in Point Loma during one of San Diego’s world-famous summer evenings. For some reason or another, following the show, my wife and I began discussing family and the legacies often left behind. We talked for hours about family property, real estate, heirlooms, and the children that carry on their family surnames. I mean, there’s so many examples of famous dynasties who share a strong aspiration for massive and enduring impact. We went on for hours over an appropriate glass (or two) of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was this discussion that prompted me to begin wondering “what will my legacy be?”
What I found particularly fascinating was lineage, in terms of legacy, can take on many different forms. In fact, what we discovered in our conversation was there was no real “right way” or true expectation for leaving a good legacy behind. This was true for so many families and individuals throughout history – many achievements we still celebrate, but often take for granted. Take, for example, the legacy of Alice Ball. Her legacy has often been overlooked but contributed enormously to the treatment of Leprosy. This young African-American chemist was not only the first woman of color to graduate with a master’s degree from her university, but her work changed the lives of so many affected by this debilitating condition. Unfortunately, she never had children or a family of her own, as she died at 24 from another debilitating condition; tuberculosis.
The pieces of the puzzle started to fit quite nicely for me upon taking on this new perspective. In fact, the whole idea of legacy not just being about bearing children to carry on a family name began to take on new meaning for me. In the interest of transparency, I need to share a few details of my personal life. Not to worry, I won’t share my preference for breakfast cereals or what I like to do in my spare time, or anything like that. However, it is worth mentioning that my wife and I are unable to have children of our own. As is often the case with so many families, children are just not part of the equation. Not for lack of want or anything like that. God…just decides an alternative path for some. I mean, who am I to question that.
Another piece of the story involves how I was raised myself. Unfortunately, as often the case with so many other children, abuse and neglect were seeded early in my development. To be somewhat specific, my father suffered from drug addiction and was very abusive during my adolescence. In fact, his disease was the contributing factor to our family’s disintegration during the early nineties. A lot of his abuse is still too painful to share; however, it was alarming to find out so many children in America suffer from the same abuse. Frankly, it’s disturbing to learn how common the issue is for a lot of youth in our society.
Ultimately, I faced a decision that, as an adult, I can either continue blaming my father for the trauma and damage he caused, or I could find an “alternative healthy path”. Hence, I began to envision this notion of legacy take on a whole new form. The “Ah-Ha” moment finally hit, and it hit hard – almost like a little voice on my shoulder screaming “Help the other kids”. Now that’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind! One that helps and serves others.
The story doesn’t end there, however. There are a few other items that play a significant role in this idea of starting a charity. First, a little more history about my abusive background. Don’t worry, this part has a much happier ending…or beginning perhaps. Much like other teens desperate to leave the roost at age eighteen, I was exceptionally anxious to get away from my situation. My father’s abuse was getting worse, and the older and bigger I got, the more violent the abuse from my father became. What was my plan? “Should I emancipate myself?” I kept wondering. “Should I move out and live with friends?” All of these thoughts had real planning at the time. The saving grace, however, in the whole matter was my interest in the joining the military. I always had an interest in the U.S. Navy. In fact, one of my all-time favorite movies was Top Gun. I know, I know, a guilty pleasure perhaps. Nonetheless, this interest lasted well into my high school years. So, on July 17th, 2000, I enlisted into the United States Navy and never looked back.
I learned so much during my career with the military and overcame so many challenges. I learned the value of self-respect, loyalty, and duty. Not just to the military, but my duty to serve a greater purpose in general. Ultimately, I found a passion to help others through my service, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the United States Navy for showing me this.
Now, up to this point, you’re probably thinking I was probably a saint. Well, that’s how I wrote it, so you’d be right. The truth is, up to the point of my enlistment, I was raising cane – ripping up and setting the world on fire! I was not taking any prisoners either. I was getting arrested, doing drugs and just being a real piece of work. You might say I was the “at-risk teen”, facing the same school to prison pipeline many teens across America face. I knew at the time I was ruining my life, but I didn’t care. I was lashing out at the world. Fortunately, and through sheer luck, I was able to manage all the basic requirements for getting into the military. Most of this was due to a lot of good people watching over me. Teachers, coaches, other parents etc. saw I had potential, and they were right! I got everything I deserved and more by joining the Navy thanks to them. I will forever be grateful to the people who saw more in me, never gave up on me, and wanted the best for me in life.
So, how does all this fit into “Why I Started a Charity for At-Risk Teens”? In my time in the Navy, I had the privilege of being out in the middle of the world’s largest oceans. I would often find myself fixed on the beauty and vastness of the ocean for hours. It was almost a therapy I never knew I needed. From the beginning, I was hooked. From those moments forward, I knew I would always have a deep appreciation and love for the ocean. In fact, there have been so many before me over the centuries proclaiming the vast knowledge and life lessons the sea can impart on its humble admirers. I was no exception. The sea taught me how to appreciate and find humility in a much larger universe. In other words, I felt like I was getting the nurturing I always yearned for. All that abuse and trauma just melted away after being out on the water. It made me feel whole inside.
Fast forward to 2014 when my wife found a Groupon for sailing lessons. It didn’t take much convincing to find an excuse to get out on the water. My career at the time allowed me to drive warships. Not just any warship, but the Navy’s newest and most technologically advanced platform since the debut of the AEGIS Cruisers and Destroyers of the mid-late eighties. I’m talking about the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS as it’s more commonly referred. This ship can propel itself to speeds in excess of 50MPH on the water, which always blows my mind. This particular warship is well over 350’ long and displaces nearly 4,000 metric tons of water. In other words, it’s an amazing engineering feat….for another story.
I was always trying to stay current in my vocation, which was ship handling at this time. I learned more about my homeport of San Diego than I ever thought, but things got really interesting when I decided to take my wife up on her Groupon gift idea. We took the class together, which was good because she got to witness firsthand my love for the ocean. It would be an understatement to say this sailing course was life changing. It took everything I loved about the ocean and skyrocketed it to a whole new level. Not only was I fascinated by the physics of sailing (the simplicity of turning two airplane wings on their side), but I was amazed by the history of sailing and how it transformed the world as we know it. To realize that everything, from the concept of time, latitude, economic trade, Space Exploration – all had roots in sailing was truly awe inspiring. For me, it was more than this however. It was therapy from an adverse background. It was the structure I learned from the military – All wrapped up in a form with tremendous value.
So, when I began looking into the nuts and bolts of starting a charity, I learned some interesting facts about San Diego. One of which I couldn’t get over. Through my research, as part of a university project for my thesis, I found the majority of at-risk teens in San Diego were coming largely from the Hispanic and minority communities near San Diego Bay. My initial thoughts were, “You mean these kids not only have the most risk, but live less than a mile from the waterline?”.
In fact, many of these teens have never been on a boat, let alone a boat on the ocean. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of teen sailing programs in the area – some of which are pretty good. None of them, however, targeted minority at-risk teens. Like I said, there are some really great programs, and I wish these agencies well. For example, the local chapter for Sea Cadets, based out of Chula Vista, has a great approach. The military-style program they run, unfortunately, misses so many teens that could benefit from a program that places them on water. This is largely due to the fact many vulnerable teens are not suited to the paramilitary training in a program like this. In other words, I believe at-risk teens need to feel welcomed and encouraged to learn more than discipline. Discipline is an inherent value in sailing. Focusing on this element alone, misses an opportunity to change their hearts.
Finally, I discovered that sailing and being out on the ocean was my true calling all along. More importantly, sharing this with those found in situations like the ones I've faced, is definitely a service I find enormous passion and value in. I also know the military isn’t for everyone, and that is completely fine. In fact, not all would benefit in the same way I did from military service. That’s why I see sailing as the ultimate mechanism for transforming negative behaviors into values grounded in leadership, public service and an appreciation for community. It’s not only about self-respect, self-confidence and everything gained while learning this timeless skill, it's about free access for those who need it. That’s what I intend to do! That will be MY legacy!
John M. Baldwin
Sailing Project Endeavor