Safe Harbor: Anchoring Young Men for Life

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For the last 25 years, more than 800 boys have dropped anchor and found peace on the shores of the Saint James River in Jacksonville, Fla.  This is where they found the Safe Harbor Boys Home.

Tyler, who is now 18, arrived at the home 15 months ago. He had spent years on a path of crime, drugs, and bad behavior.

"I look at it in two ways," he told CBN News. "I'd either be dead or I'd be in jail. One of the two guaranteed."

These days, Tyler dreams of becoming a chef and owning his own restaurants. Like so many of his Safe Harbor peers, the home is where Tyler found hope and the chance to sail away his troubled home. 

Click here for more on Safe Harbor Boy's Home.

"When you get here you kind of resent it," he said, remembering his first few weeks at Safe Harbor. "You have never been in such a structured environment; and the rules, wake up times. When you eat and what you eat."

"It's definitely one of those once in a lifetime experiences where you do it, and you are going to look back on it the rest of your life," said Will, another young man who has been at Safe Harbor a little more than year.

Will spent months skipping school before he found the home. He hated high school, but these days he dreams of being a mechanic and going to college.

The Key to a Structured Experience

Water is at the center of each of the boy's new structured experience. Executive Director Robbie Smith is one of the captains steering the successful ship. By her side is her husband Doug, who is the program pirector. This is their life's work, but neither takes a salary.

"Faith is what keeps us buoyed up," Smith told CBN News. "And it is what keeps us afloat and keep us going and moving forward because we know there is a purpose behind what we are doing. And we know there is a purpose for our life."

Neither of the Smiths planned to open a boys home in 1984. Fast forward 25 years, and the story of how it began is the focus of an original Hallmark Channel movie. "Safe Harbor" premieres on the cable network Saturday, May 30.  Check local listings.

The film begins with the pair preparing to sail the country on their yacht after selling Doug's successful business and retiring early. Before they can begin their adventure, a friend who Robbie knew from her career as child therapist, asks them to look after two teenage boys in trouble.

"These couple of boys come into our lives, which subsequently changes the whole direction of our life," Smith said. "But we really feel like at that point that is when we start to work in God's plan. Not that we knew it because if we knew it, we might have sabotaged it."

95 Percent Success Rate

Safe Harbor has a 95 percent success rate. In the last 25 years, the residential high school program has grown to include lessons in welding and nautical upholstery. Between their studies, the boys learn to build hydroplane racing boats and learn to prepare all the meals at the home. Safe Harbor can accommodate 15 boys at a time. There are 12 in the program now. Each boy lives aboard his very own boat and is fully responsible for all the upkeep.

"The boat is donated," Doug explained, who can see himself in each of the boys he serves. "They fix the boat and as they fix the boat they learn a skill. And as they learn a skill, they discover they can do anything they put their mind to."

As a kid, Doug spent lots of time close to the water. Doctors diagnosed his father as a paranoid schizophrenic, and that drove Doug to run away from home as teenager. He spent many nights sleeping under Jacksonville's Maine Street Bridge.

"I lived with a prostitute on Maine Street, because she really didn't care that I was a minor child on the run from the law," he said. "Her life was bad enough. Mine was nothing."

A dog also kept Doug company while he was living on the street. When a police officer shot his dog, Doug assaulted the officer.  A group of fishermen saved him from jail. They encouraged a judge to send him to seaman school.

"The only thing important in this world is people," Doug explained. 

He believes his troubled past prepared him to serve the boys of Safe Harbor.

"God has shown me where the true treasure lies," he said.

One of Safe Harbor's First Residents

Steve Barnes was one of the first residents of Safe Harbor. He arrived from a juvenile detention center in 1985. He can see himself and his anger, dramatized in the film. He traded his anger for peace shortly after arriving at the home. More than 20 years later, he has traded a successful journalism career for a life as a Florida politician. He is also a husband and the father of three girls. He says he owes his success to the Smiths.

"They help me turn my life around," Barnes told CBN News.  "But what people don't always see is there is a ripple affect. So that my kids are benefited by this. There kids will be benefited by this, their classmates. It is just a ripple that goes out in all directions."

Waves of Change 

Waves of change start with a ripple. Doug and Robbie now hope the television movie that tells their story will inspire others.

"There is no shortage of kids that need help," Doug said with tears in his eyes.  "And I believe America has a lot of wonderful people in it that want to make a difference, but they just don't know what to do."

*Originally published May 28, 2009

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.