Aref Abdala went on his first Freedom Waters Foundation boat outing when he was 8 and suffering from leukemia. He wasn’t use to being on the water, and at first there was nervousness and a feeling of uncertainty. Likewise, his family was a bit hesitant and didn’t know what to expect on the lunch cruise outing. But after a little time on the water, they started loosening up and having a good time. Abdala got to pilot the yacht.
“He wanted to come back. Him and his family attend our Winterfest boat potlucks and they have joined us every year since then,” says Debra Frenkel, one of the people who made the trip happen.
Today Abdala is 14, leukemia-free and the face on the brochure of Freedom Waters, the organization that took him onto the water. A nonprofit founded in 2006 by Frenkel and John Weller, Freedom Waters offers boat outing opportunities and marine-related experiences to people with disabilities and health problems, veterans, and children with special needs. Freedom Waters takes these diverse groups of people and gives them a uniquely South Floridian therapy – time on the water.
From 800 participants served in its first year, it’s grown to serving a total of 10,000. with the help of 200 volunteers and assistance from private and commercial boat owners who donate their time and boats.
“I provide the boats, and she brings the families,” Weller, a yacht broker and six-time cancer survivor, says of Frenkel.
Frenkel was previously employed by another nonprofit organization that did similar work. When that organization closed its doors in October of 2005, Frenkel decided to keep the work going. She incorporated Freedom Waters Foundation the following year. She had already built a small network with families, and the community was able to find volunteers and boat owners willing to dedicate their time. They used 15 boats in that first year; the number has doubled since then.
An outing with Freedom Waters typically starts off with children and families loading the boat and meeting each other. The organization tries to bring together different families who have similar life struggles so that they’re able to share laughs and conversation with each other. Family trips tend to run about three to four hours, taking families as far as Jupiter. Children are able to participate in different activities on the boat such as fishing, piloting the boat or watching for manatees. As for the parents, well, they simply relax.
“We get a big thank you from families just for a day of relaxation,” Frenkel says. “Parents feel less stress as most people do from the natural therapeutic effects of being on the water; having some relief of others taking care of their children while they relax and just being able to leave their worries behind [on] the docks while they share a happy, memorable experience with their children.”
Freedom Waters presents different boat outings and fishing tournaments such as Freedom Waters Foundation Heels and Reels Fishing Tournament, which benefits teen girls at risk through the PACE Center for Girls, offering them the opportunity to enhance their life skills through fishing.
Throughout its decade of existence, Freedom Waters has expanded to serve as many different groups of people as possible who might benefit from time on the water.
“We partner up with women’s groups, Alzheimer [groups], veterans, kids who have parents with cancer. It’s a lot of people that would enjoy the outing. We try to accommodate all groups,” says Andrew Cilla, yacht broker and Freedom Waters president.
Several years ago, Freedom Waters extended their services to veterans as well. In the summer of 2011, the foundation was approached by a veterans’ center counselor and asked if they would consider partnering programs for the veterans. It was an easy yes. In the first year, Freedom Waters served 400 veterans and their family members. Many outings with the veterans and their families are on a yacht built in 1926, Mariner III, that was used in War World II.
As the veterans board the yacht, some are guarded and closed in. But once a conversation begins, many of these wartime veterans begin to reminisce, open up – and find familiarity among each other. “Combat veterans, many of them don’t socialize very much. This is very beneficial, gives them the freedom to exchange words and their experiences,” says Charles “Chuck” MacMahon, a Vietnam veteran and Freedom Waters volunteer.
Some who were served by Freedom Waters have gone on to volunteer with the organization. MacMahon got involved earlier in the organization’s history and has been happy to see it evolve.
“When I started helping with the Freedom Waters [Foundation], it was mostly helping people with life-threatening illness, which they still do,” he says. “Now they’re doing [this] good work with veterans.”