4772 Safe Harbor Way
Jacksonville, Florida 32226
Safe Harbor is a lifeline for troubled boys. The maritime-based boarding school program in Jacksonville, Florida is similar to a therapeutic boarding school, but it uses maritime training as a therapeutic model.
Safe Harbor admits boys age 15-17 who are experiencing behavior problems in home and at school and need an alternative home setting. The purpose of Safe Harbor is to assist the boys in becoming responsible, mature and independent young men through spiritual, educational and vocational training.
Safe Harbor helps a boy become a young man of character and integrity, with a vision for their own future. Once the boys have an “I can and will” attitude, they naturally branch out into caring for others. Therefore, community service is an important part of Safe Harbor’s program. Learning to give into a community makes it one’s own and what a person claims as their own, they take care of and have pride in. This is why each donor, sponsor, volunteer makes a real difference at Safe Harbor; it becomes their own.
Safe Harbor has been featured in People Magazine, and on CBS This Morning, NBC News Today, CNN, and CBN. The story of the unique boarding school for at-risk boys is featured in the Safe Harbor movie, starring Treat Williams, on Hallmark Channel.
Since its inception, the Safe Harbor program has provided each boy with the mental, physical and spiritual strength to succeed in life. Water and boating have always played an integral part in people’s lives. Life on the water provides serenity and peace, but also unequaled opportunities for life.
Safe Harbor was founded “accidentally” 30 years ago when a judge asked the founders, Robbie and Doug Smith, to care for a troubled boy on their large sailboat, instead of that boy being sent to juvenile hall for the weekend. The judge, a friend of Doug’s, wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, even though the Smiths were retired and about to embark on an around-the-world trip on their boat. The success of that weekend triggered more pleas by the judge for the Smiths to help more boys, until the Smiths needed more help. A nonprofit program was launched and formalized in 1984. Safe Harbor is now an established, charitable, nonprofit, maritime boarding school based in Jacksonville, Florida. It utilizes maritime principles, discipline, and seamanship as a therapeutic model for helping turn around at-risk teenage boys. Safe Harbor provides a safe, structured, and exciting alternative to therapeutic boarding schools and harsher juvenile programs.
Boys in this program have been exhibiting at-risk behavior due to a number of causes:
Safe Harbor is an interdenominational program. The staff are dedicated Christian (Protestant) individuals who care for each boy in the program. Boys from different religious backgrounds or those from no religious upbringing are accepted and no child is required to change their beliefs to have success in the program. However, parents or guardians of the residents MUST understand that being a Christ-centered ministry is the reason success comes to the boys at Safe Harbor. Most guardians or parents are delighted to “have their son back” and are happy to have them exposed to a spiritual influence.
The Safe Harbor program is structured and centers on teaching a work ethic and helping the boys understand their behavior is leading them into less and less freedom. This program develops positive character traits by exposing the boys to many vocational education opportunities including carpentry, welding, boat maintenance & repair, gas and diesel engine repair, and some basic electrical concepts. Character traits such as dependability, follow-through, focus, and attention to detail, are taught in these courses. Every class at Safe Harbor is entitled “work” to expose these boys to the world of employment, where the majority are headed within twenty four months.
Counseling is provided individually and through groups by both licensed mental health professionals and pastoral counselors. All staff are involved in mentoring during time spent with the boys. These informal settings help the boys relax, begin to trust adults, and learn life lessons not acquired elsewhere. Most boys entering the program have had outpatient counseling but this has not yielded results.
Professional staff conducts individual sessions with families and their sons including conversations over the phone, and staff sends frequent emails to keep family updated. Additionally, short weekly phone calls along with encouraged letter writing helps restore family relationships. Once placed into residential care, the boy’s family suddenly becomes very important again.
Lasting change takes time, and the process and timing for each boy is unique. Guardians and/or families must take a long-term view of the process that develops change. The poor attitudes and habits the boys have upon entering the program did not occur overnight and they will only change over time. Families must be committed to the process of change; longer lengths of stay promote stability and community through the experience of connection and belonging that comes from this stable, structured community environment.