Planet Hope was first established in 1998. After spending 10 years working with teens and college students in the suburbs, our founder moved his family into the heart of Washington DC to work with the inner-city community. How does a sailing program emerge from a back alley in a Washington DC neighborhood? Here’s our story:

It took a huge push broom to sweep up all the glass in the alley behind the row house in Washington DC, but once cleared of trash, broken bottles and discarded syringes; the concrete field was ready for a soccer game. Although, with that particular crowd of gang members, drug dealers, and street kids, coupled with the narrow chain link fence lined alley, it felt more like refereeing a cage fight than officiating a neighborhood soccer game!

No matter what was done, alley hockey, alley basketball or the weekly alley hot dog cookouts, there was always a crowd around that little row house. All kinds of activities were tried, but the young people were still in the middle of a busy city full of crime. If only these kids could experience the beauty of what lays outside the city limits. It was surprising how many of them had spent their whole lives within the ten square miles of Washington, DC.

An old donated boat, a loaned out mooring and an abandoned dinghy, made it possible to plan the first sailing trip. The van was filled to overflow capacity for the 40 minute ride out to the Chesapeake Bay. As the first group rowed out in the rickety dinghy, you would think that the teens had died and gone to heaven. When the group set sail, that hard shell encasing many of them began to crack, smiles broke free as they clutched the gunnels for dear life! Their eyes lifted up and new horizons were seen for the first time.

Unfortunately, kids are chatterboxes and just can’t keep anything to themselves. More boats were added, sailors recruited, donors solicited and the young people kept coming. A dinghy fleet was purchased, summer sailing camps filled, cruising boats added. The heart of what had emerged was cruising on sailboats. From an afternoon sail to a week-long adventure, a couple of adults can have an amazing impact on a handful of young people. Away from cable TV, internet and cell phones (although it takes some doing to pry the cell phones away) people have time to actually interact, share, and laugh and sometime cry together. Sailing groups were formed to allow for this to happen naturally.

In 2002 the organization became an ASA affiliate school. The cruising focused curriculum seemed to fit the organization. Instructors went through IQC’s so that volunteers could be trained and certified. A sailing community had emerged and a system was needed to help organize the fleet. Capt Jack Feeney, the founder of The Sailboat Club in Jacksonville, FL helped this new sailing school set in place The Sailboat Club concept which fit perfectly with the mission. Now the instructors and volunteers could check out boats to sail with their group. New members were able to join the organization, enjoy time on the sailboats and membership fees help support the youth sailing programs and help to maintain the fleet. The sailing club is now in its 10th season. The fleet has yachts from 25 to 40’ on the Chesapeake Bay. It is important to the club to provide boats for those not ready or able to own a vessel of their own.

At first, only instructors and volunteers were trained, but more requests were coming in for sailing courses. Especially from those new to the sport in need training in order to sail club boats. An adult sailing program began to take shape and within a few years. The Chesapeake Bay offers perfect cruising destinations for the youth programs and sailing school. There is one spot on the Chesapeake Bay that is incredibly close to Washington DC. Believe it or not, from Capitol Hill, it takes about 35 minutes to get to Herring Bay (not in rush hour traffic). The location is also very accessible from Northern Virginia, Central and Southern Maryland. A fleet of sailboats is now maintained at Herrington Harbour, a beautiful resort marina just off Herring Bay.

Besides the youth dinghy and sailing camps, the school offers family sailing and will allow children to take courses with their parents. There are not many sports that children and grandparents can participate in at the same time. Grandma would not last long on the basketball court and the grandkids seem to lose interest in shuffle board pretty quickly. Everyone can get involved in sailing together, young and old, of all ability levels can share and learn from each other while all having meaningful time together. The equation is simple: The more children that spend quality time with adults doing relationship building activities such as sailing, the less troubled teens there will be.

The moral of the story? Think twice before you clear an alley for a soccer game.

While managing Planet Hope and the sailboat club, Captain Jeff Bowen still spends as much time as possible sailing with his family and friends.