- 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.”

Barnes, who now lives in Sanford, ultimately became a high school and college graduate and a journalist. He was elected to countywide office, ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature and is now an investor and consultant, husband, father and mentor.

“Without the skills and confidence I learned at Safe Harbor, I would never have even attempted these challenges. . I would likely be dead or in prison today,” he said.

Julian, 18, Celso,16, and Josh, 17 - their last names were withheld at the request of the academy - are among the Smiths’ last group of boys.

They are preparing to graduate from the program, to be followed in coming months by new residents selected by new executive director Johnson. Like Barnes, they said they initially chafed against the discipline and rules but have come to realize the positive effects.

Josh said he has learned the importance of “thinking through things,” considering consequences before acting. Celso said he has learned the importance of “thinking ahead” and setting goals.

The Smiths, they said, have built them up.

“They do whatever they can to help you,” said Julian.

The Smiths said they find such appreciation gratifying and are particularly touched when the boys-turned-men keep in touch after they leave, as Barnes has done. They are aware that boys view them as tough when they are under their thumbs but relish hearing from them later that they came to appreciate the Smith doctrine, Robbie Smith said.

“They call me warden,” she said of her current charges.

Then she noted their open, waterfront, marina-like surroundings. “Look around. It’s not like they’re in jail,” she said.

After June 30, the Smiths plan to travel for a few months, so Johnson can get his bearings without them around.

They then will return to live on the Safe Harbor property but separated from the daily operations. They will assume ambassador roles, traveling near and far to raise funds and awareness.

“This is home,” Robbie Smith said. “We’re not done. . We just have to slow down.”

Doug Smith said they could hang up a new counseling shingle.

“I see us counseling groups of parents,” he said, “to keep kids from ending up here.”


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com

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