The Freedom Waters Foundation provides therapeutic boating, fishing, and adaptive sailing programs for children and adults with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, as well as veterans and at-risk youth. Founder and executive director Debra Frenkel first entered the boating world while working as a social worker in Chicago. “I was getting pretty burnt out and kept seeing sailboats in my head,” she remembers. She learned to sail and volunteered with a disabled sailing program, then ended up running several such programs herself over the following decade.
One of the first people she met in the industry, John Weller, later became the co-founder of Freedom Waters Foundation. A cancer survivor, he wanted to hold boat outings for children with cancer and soon encouraged Frenkel to start her own foundation.
She launched it in 2006, choosing the name after a Paralympic sailor friend told her he kept going out on the water because of the freedom it offered.
After 15 years, the organization provides more than 3,200 on-the-water experiences annually. Frenkel recalls the first veterans’ event drawing only two participants, both of whom seemed uncomfortable to be there. But after their fishing trip, she says, “They were totally changed men—smiling, talking, laughing.” One of them helped Frenkel expand the veterans’ program, bringing the next trip to 142 veterans and leading to established year-round veterans’ events.
Frenkel says her favorite part of running the foundation is “making people smile, feel loved, and giving them a memory for a lifetime.” As the organization works toward building a national presence, more people will have the opportunity to benefit from boating experiences. “Being out in nature, being one with water, it is just a natural therapy,” Frenkel explains. “People at the end of all of our trips are always more relaxed.” With an average of 300 volunteers per year helping in the Naples and Fort Lauderdale offices and on the water, the organization builds a greater sense of understanding and tolerance for differences.