An experienced sailor, Kathryn Guevara knows her way around on the water. But getting into the small sailboat was a real challenge.
She had a little help on Thursday. Eight student mentors steadied the boat at Miami-Dade's Oleta River State Park and three adults hoisted Guevara from her wheelchair into a pink sailboat.
With an electronic joystick, Guevara, 24, beamed as she directed the boat out into open waters — far away from the wheelchair that she uses.
Guevara, who has cerebral palsy, had an appreciative audience back on shore.
“On the water, she is free,” said Chris Martin, who heads the adaptive physical education program at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where Guevara graduated in 2011. “It gives her a taste of independence.”
For her mother, Marsha Monti, seeing her daughter out on the water was incredible.
“I never thought I’d be able to see her do this,” Monti said, as she used her cellphone to snap pictures of her daughter.
Guevara and thousands of children in Miami-Dade County Public schools with physical and intellectual disabilities have been learning to sail over the last 10 years, thanks to the Anchors Away program.
On Thursday, dozens showed up to celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary, which began when Jayne Greenberg, the school district’s director of physical education and health literacy, went on a sailing expedition with middle school children.
Her idea was to buy a special boat that children, with all ability levels, could steer. She floated the idea by her good friend Elaine Adler, president of the Aventura Marketing Council.
The next thing she knew she was in front of philanthropist Billy Joel — who later became an Aventura commissioner — and he, as a boat lover, immediately committed to buying the first boat. He also promised to raise enough to buy six.
In the fall of 2004, the boats were ready. In 2005, the group gathered at Oleta River State Park to officially launch its first fleet of what Joel thought was six boats. But his friends chipped in and bought a seventh boat in honor of his late brother Jack Joel.
Greenberg said the program caught on quickly. Schools from across the county started bringing their special needs students to use the boats.
“We never could have imagined it would have grown like this,” she said.
Over the years, more fundraising continued and several more boats were purchased. What started as an informal committee became Anchors Away, a non-profit organization in 2008, run through the marketing council.
The organization later became a foundation and it supports maintenance of the vessels. Through a $25,000 grant, Anchors Away also added beach access wheelchairs to its inventory. When the program first started, each boat cost $3,000. Now, they’re about $5,000 apiece.
Eventually, Greenberg hopes the program will be picked up across the nation.
At Thursday’s celebration, the 37 boats now in Anchors Away’s fleet were lined up on shore. As their colorful sails flapped in the wind, student mentors from Hialeah Gardens middle and high schools helped some 80 special needs students from different schools get in and out of the vessels.
Joel, on hand for the celebration, could barely hold back tears as he thanked everyone for opening their hearts and wallets to the program.
“This is very emotional for me,” he said. “When Kathryn first started she could barely hold a finger up. Now, she goes out on her own.”
Said Martin, of North Miami Beach Senior High, “The one problem we have with the program is getting them off the water. And that’s a lovely problem to have.”