- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Robbie and Doug Smith were preparing for a round-the-world sailboat cruise in 1982 when they and their Jacksonville-based boat temporarily took in a few troubled boys to work on the water.

They never went on that cruise.

What was supposed to be a yearlong detour turned into a 32-year career. Since the couple founded the Safe Harbor Maritime Academy, a Christian therapeutic boarding school for boys, they have helped about 1,100 at-risk boys turn their lives around.

But last year, Doug Smith, 61, had a stroke, which led him and his wife, 57, to ponder the future. They said in a recent interview that they love their “boys,” but the slower pace and freedom of retirement beckoned.

“I’m too old for this,” Doug Smith said.

So on June 30, they will turn over day-to-day operations to former staffer Dustin Johnson, whom they brought back to lead the privately funded academy’s second act.

“We’re tired,” Robbie Smith said. “It’s time.”

Robbie Smith is a licensed mental health counselor. Her husband is a licensed clinical pastoral counselor and an ordained minister.

At Safe Harbor, located on the banks of the St. Johns River near Blount Island, boys ages 14 to 17 find direction via the Smith doctrine of structure and stability, discipline and caring. They learn maritime skills and receive vocational training while studying for their high school diploma.

Some of the school’s 30 donated boats are used as sleeping quarters for the boys. Others are used in the school’s maritime career training program or for scuba-diving certification, one of the extracurricular rewards available for students who behave well and fulfill their responsibilities.

The school has about 15 boys at any one time, mostly from the East Coast. Most stay a year, some as long as four. About a third of graduates enter military service and about 70 percent further their education after leaving.

Steve Barnes arrived in 1985 at age 16.

He said he began getting in trouble in middle school, trying to fit in by drinking, smoking marijuana, skipping school and running away. He spent six weeks in a juvenile detention facility, six weeks in inpatient drug treatment. He did “major soul-searching” and became a Christian, but said he still didn’t know how to proceed.

His parents feared a return to his old ways if he came home. Safe Harbor was recommended and Barnes stayed there until his 18th birthday.

“I wasn’t used to the strict discipline, the hard work or the structure. But those were the very things I needed at that time,” Barnes said. “It was a lesson in the ways of life: One must work to achieve, be respectful to gain respect and above all else become a person of integrity, whose word is his bond and someone who takes responsibility for his actions. Those lessons have stayed with me.”

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